by Philip Price
This one is a hard nut to crack. Both for this reviewer and the filmmakers as Madeline L'Engle's 1962 novel that serves as the source material for this latest Disney live-action adaptation has been said to be unfilmmable. “A Wrinkle in Time” was always going to be different though, in that this wasn't a Disney live-action re-make in the vein of one of their treasured animated films from their golden age or renaissance period, but rather the Mouse House had enlisted “Selma” and “13th” director Ava DuVernay to bring this much beloved material to the screen. On the other end of this review is myself who somehow made it through grade school without finding L'Engle's novel despite being an avid reader and fan of all things science-fiction/fantasy. “A Wrinkle in Time” is one of those cases where my intent was to in fact read the book prior to seeing the film, but that intent never led to any kind of fruition and so I walked into DuVernay's adaptation of this seemingly complex yet still kid-friendly source material last night with little to no expectation as to where the story might take me. What I did know was that the trailers hinted at some pretty spectacular imagery as well as some intriguing ideas that would be interesting to see worked out through a narrative. First things first though, “A Wrinkle in Time” misses a huge opportunity to inject a rather epic title card (which, if you've read my reviews before, is kind of a thing for me), but more so by the third or fourth scene it's clear there is a stiffness to the events that have unfolded thus far and that there is a certain flow most movies settle into that A “Wrinkle in Time” isn't finding. It's a weird kind of phenomenon that either happens or doesn't and most of the time, especially with movies such as this AKA big-budget spectacles produced by Disney, there is such a reliability factor that we as viewers automatically settle into the groove and/or movement of the environment the movie invites us into, but this speaks to what is the biggest weakness of DuVernay's adaptation in that it's never sure enough of itself. Where this apprehensiveness comes from in terms of movie language doesn't necessarily seem to come from DuVernay's filmmaking skills as anyone who saw “Selma” can attest to her talent, but there is a more deep-seeded issue at the heart of this big-budget spectacle and I don't know whether it comes from the seeming compression of the original text or the inability to materialize the countless words L'Engle put on the page, but 2018's “A Wrinkle in Time” is essentially a concept that possesses these larger than life ideas as reduced to their simplest form.
Jennifer Lee (“Frozen”) and Jeff Stockwell's (“Bridge to Terabithia”) screenplay may be at the root of this problem as, by the second act of the film where we are indeed deep into the adventure despite not feeling like we really know these characters, there seems to be no sense of structure, no stakes or rising action despite events undeniably taking place. It is in this lack of character investment and the consistently evident pacing issues that plague the entirety of the picture that we find fault in DuVernay's direction. The trailers have hailed the filmmaker as being "visionary" and the visuals present in “A Wrinkle in Time,” at least some of them, may warrant this adjective above her name, but if we're talking about someone who sees the entire package, the big picture, it doesn't ever feel as if DuVernay earns that title in this film given that unease that seeps into nearly every scene. Individual scenes are moving, individual sequences are fun and interesting, but on top of one another they never build to anything worth caring about or anything that is as interesting as these characters seem to believe their situation is. This begins by keeping Mr. and Mrs. Murray's (Chris Pine and Gugu Mbatha-Raw) scientific ambitions rather vague. Sure, they want to travel across time and space without rocket ships and think they've discovered a way to potentially do so, but the scene given the most exposition around this also plays up what a quack the audience listening in on Mr. Murray's lecture thinks he is by the time he comes to the end of it. Keep in mind, we are also only given such exposition after Dr. Murray has been gone for four years-disappearing without a trace and leaving his wife, daughter, and newly adopted son behind. And sure, it's cool to want to try and accomplish these insane things and to crave the knowledge of what exists beyond our world, but why? Why do Mr. and Mrs. Murray, both seemingly respected scientists otherwise, want to achieve this or prove the possibility of such? What is the personal angle? What is their drive other than validation? Unfortunately, we never become privy to such insight because Mbatha-Raw and Pine are essentially small supporting characters in this children's adventure that ultimately comes to reinforce the simple lesson of love conquering all rather than exploring the philosophical questions inherent in good versus evil and why as much exists in the universe as that would seem the more fulfilling territory. Don't get me wrong, I can appreciate this is a rather strange and pretty trippy movie unabashedly made for younger audiences, but that isn't an excuse to not make it mesh as well as it should or be as compelling as it so easily could have been.
Furthermore, this vagueness within who these characters truly are extends even into our trio of main characters as beyond the fact she misses her father and has let her grades and mood deflate because of it we don't really know why Meg Murray (Storm Reid) is so disconnected from those around her save for her younger brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), who is beyond pretentious and a little grating in the way he comes across via the child performer. Reid comes across as an endearing enough presence and we want to root for her Meg, but while she is supposedly not as ready to experience or understand what Charles Wallace has more easily taken to we never fully comprehend why this is such a difficult transition for Meg to make when her biological father of all people is the one to have discovered and fulfilled its potential (it being the ability to "tesser" across space and time into other parts of our universe). There are hints of Meg feeling inadequate and unsure of herself as there are bullies at school who are kind of beyond cruel for no apparent reason (as led by Rowan Blanchard), but this aspect only seems present so as to show that bullies more often than not are coming from a place of their own pain. Still, while bullying and her father's disappearance may play into Meg's inability to feel worthy of the possibilities and opportunities she is presented with shortly thereafter there is never a strong enough sense throughout the rest of the film as to why the solution to her insecurities is that of being herself and being okay with being herself other than it feels like the right message to send to the many kids who will be seeing this movie. That isn't to say this wasn't the same message that was conveyed in the novel, I'm sure it's in there somewhere, but if so I have to believe it didn't feel as blatantly bland as presented in this new adaptation. Meg is a character who, as we come to learn, is meant to become one of the great minds of our human race alongside Einstein, da Vinci and Gandhi, but there are no glimpses as to why Meg would be positioned as such given Reid's portrayal of the character other than the fact she learns through the coaxing of these three celestial beings that she has more to offer than she gives herself credit for. And it may be unfair to come down on a character who is on the cusp of her teenage years for not fully knowing who she is or what she wants to be yet, especially after dealing with a traumatic experience, but while Meg seemingly should be this surrogate for so much of what DuVernay wants to say she ends up feeling as empty as the spectacle that surrounds her throughout much of the (what feels like abbreviated) runtime.
Speaking of those celestial beings, how do they play into the proceedings and is there more weight to them than their extravagant wardrobes? Well, somewhat. In many ways, they are the most engaging characters in the film as they offer this doorway to these galaxies and planets we've never seen before and while Reese Witherspoon is delightfully eccentric in her first appearance as Mrs. Whatsit she is given very little room to spread what are very clearly very wide wings any further other than in a sequence where she morphs into a CGI leaf creature with a face that exists solely for the visual spectacle of it all as well as to introduce the audience to the antagonist of the piece in a planet referred to as Camazotz and the "IT" which, as I understand it, is the disembodied brain that controls all the inhabitants of Camazotz or the embodiment of evil on this planet. Sounds menacing, right? Too bad it looks like something akin to Parallax in 2011's “Green Lantern” (yes, that awful Ryan Reynolds comic book movie) which brings me to how, despite a handful of stunning shots, this feels nowhere near as stunning as it should. Anyway, if Witherspoon has the most to do out of the three celestial beings and already feels limited one can only imagine then how expendable Oprah and Mindy Kaling's Mrs. Which and Mrs. Who must feel despite being inherently intriguing. As Mrs. Which, Oprah more or less does her Oprah thing and spouts inspirational adages that are meant to give Meg just enough insight to figure out what she really needs to possess within herself in order to defeat the "IT" and free her father without spelling it out whereas Kaling's Mrs. Who only speaks in quotations from famous thinkers and writers which leads to the most unbelievable moment in a movie with a flying lettuce monster where Calvin (Levi Miller), a 13-year old white kid in 2018, knows an Outkast lyric by ear. So many of these elements are fascinating on their own terms and would likely be more effective were the narrative compounded in a way that gave the audience any real interest in where this journey was taking them, but as it unfolds on screen “A Wrinkle in Time” more feels like a series of events with no real connective tissue which is never more apparent than in the scene featuring a fun, but ineffective Zach Galifianakis. Even in the climactic sequence, the visuals in which DuVernay chooses to illustrate these large ideas and lessons her characters are supposed to be learning feel more basic than they do cinematic; as if something out of a commercial rather than that of the mind of a visionary director. Ultimately and unfortunately, much of “A Wrinkle in Time” comes to be rote and recycled rather than fresh and inventive. It's a flat and uninvolving mess of a movie that needed to take its time to figure out where all of its individual parts stood before beginning their collaboration.