The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Also, sometimes, the road to the local movie theater.
There is probably no film this year that will have a bigger, warmer heart than Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of “A Wrinkle in Time.” With “Selma” (and then her documentary on the criminal justice system, “13th,”) DuVernay immediately established herself as a smart, socially conscious filmmaker – and then leveraged that power to become a leading force for inclusion and empowerment.
Madeleine L’Engle’s 1962 novel, meanwhile – with its proto-nerdy 13-year-old heroine, Meg, all unruly hair and glasses and calm conviction that physics is cool – has been a template for decades of modern, femme-oriented adventures in which girls did a lot more than just waiting around to be rescued. (As well as providing an early STEM-friendly, career-positive message: Both Meg’s parents were scientists.)
So why is DuVernay’s “Wrinkle” such a disappointment?
It’s not because of what DuVernay (and screenwriters Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell) did immediately and almost instinctively – create a racially diverse cast of characters. That’s not out of keeping with L’Engle’s original novel (which told us Meg had brown hair, and her mother had red hair, and pretty much left its descriptions at that) and it feels not only correct but comfortable.
So Meg is now played by the bi-racial actress Storm Reid; her adopted brother is Filipino-American newcomer Deric McCabe. And the three comic guides who lead Meg, her brother and their friend on an intergalactic search for Meg’s missing father are played by Oprah Winfrey, Mindy Kaling and Reese Witherspoon. (Another change – one of the book’s more metaphysical villains, The Black Thing, has now, quite understandably, been renamed.)
A few other changes are less defensible – it’s a shame that L’Engle’s strong Christian faith has been de-emphasized, and I miss Aunt Beast — but all-in-all, this is not a script that’s been hijacked by the PC Police. It’s simply an adaptation that took a text which asked readers to use their imaginations, and then took it at its word.
It’s DuVernay’s own imagination as a director that falters. Although many will give her and the film the benefit of the doubt — I expect chiropractors to be overwhelmed by critics who hurt themselves bending over backwards – “Wrinkle” really doesn’t work.
Although DuVernay broke through with “Selma” in 2014, she’s been busy as a director for a dozen years now, doing features, documentaries, shorts and TV episodes. But what she doesn’t have any experience in is outright fantasy. She’s honed her skills working on movies based on the messy details of everyday life (and, sometimes, on films based on real lives).
That talent, and comfort level, shows in “Wrinkle” in the scenes before the magic and the mystery. The way Chris Pine, as Meg’s father, interacts tenderly with her in his cluttered home lab. The way Pine and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, playing Meg’s mother, believably relate to each other as utterly devoted, and occasionally exasperated, partners. Shot mostly in closeup with a handheld camera, these scenes feel immediate and intimate and real.
But then the cosmic helpers arrive to speed Meg on her journey – Mrs. Who, Mrs. Whatsit and Mrs. Which. And DuVernay’s imagination fails her. Called upon to visualize these magical mentors (who, in L’Engle’s book, came across as delightful, rather sloppy matrons), she suddenly slathers on the glitz, with shiny metallic makeup, high heels and outré couture. She even, briefly, makes Oprah literally the size of a house (but then, Oprah always looms large in pop culture).
It’s not just that it’s distractingly flashy; it’s that, unlike the rest of the movie’s changes, it seems to contradict the meaning of the book. In the novel, these magical characters wrapped themselves in borrowed sheets and stomped around in old boots; the not-unimportant point was that appearances don’t matter. But that’s lost when you have a pontificating 30-foot Oprah dripping in glitter, or Kaling and Witherspooon changing costumes and hairstyles with every adventure.
If the glamorization of Who, Whatsit and Which feels like a crucial mistake, the rest of the film’s special effects seem more like a simple disappointment. An extended sequence, when Witherspoon’s character turns into a giant flying leaf, doesn’t merely add nothing to the narrative – it’s badly animated. Some fantasy sequences – typically, those set in more recognizable locales like a quiet suburb, or a crowded beach — work fine, and play to DuVernay’s strengths. But others are just fake fantasy landscapes and garish washes of color. There’s no sense of wonder.
Apart from Winfrey – who swans through the film in beautiful gowns and an equally lavish sense of self-importance – the performances are terrific. Particularly wonderful are Storm Reid as our plucky heroine and the extraordinary Deric McCabe as her preternaturally smart younger brother. Some welcome moments of humor come from Witherspoon, as the occasionally sharp-tongued Whatsit, and Zach Galifianakis as the Happy Medium or, as he describes himself, “some weirdo with a beard living in a cave.”
But in the end, there’s far too much Disney dazzle in this overdone yet ultimately underwhelming film. Yes, it has plenty of eyecandy. But unlike the book, it gives you little to chew on.