Well, I’ve just walked out of perhaps the strangest Disney film in quite some time. Ava DuVernay has proven to be a major voice in Hollywood since the success of her Martin Luther King biopic Selma, enough for Disney to want to take a chance on her for a film adaption of Madeleine L’Engle’s 1962 novel A Wrinkle In Time.
I can see how DuVernay would want to interpret the visuals and concepts described in the novel this way, and I won’t deny how visually amazing this film is. But I can’t help but chuckle at the sight of Oprah Winfrey as a gigantic star goddess, having her cheek caressed by a young boy as he flies around on a green carpet monster. It’s hard to believe the infamously cautious “house of the mouse” was willing to greenlight such a heady acid-trip of a picture.
Winfrey plays Mrs. Which, the leader of three celestial beings called “the Ms’s” alongside her partners Mrs. Who (Mindy Kailing) and Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon). They travel to Earth by means of a technique called “tesseract”- a concept involving folding, or “wrinkling” the fabric of time and space- that the father of Meg Murry (Storm Reid), Dr. Alex Murphy (Chris Pine) attempted to explain to the public before he mysteriously disappeared four years ago.
For some reason, there’s a school bully (Rowan Blanchard) inserted into the story who torments Meg at her high school (earning her a basketball pass to the face), and I can’t figure out what her deal is. “Haha, your dad’s gone! What a dweeb!”
Meg’s child prodigy brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) gradually introduces her and her new friend Calvin (Levi Miller) to the astral Ms’s, and the trio teleport the children to a lush garden planet Uriel in preparation to search for Meg’s father. With the help of the cave-dwelling guru Happy Medium (Zach Galifianakis), the group sets on a quest to rescue Dr. Murry from a strange, gigantic brain creature called “The It” (voiced sinisterly by Selma star David Oyelowo).
L’Engle’s original text has arguable analogies to Communist Russia in how The It attempts to force beings into a mindless sense of conformity mixed with more overt Christian references. But Disney’s version of Wrinkle is more focused on the emotion of the story than the book’s more cerebral aspects.
The intelligence of these characters, to prodigious levels in the case of Charles Wallace, is always evident. But when the characters weren’t overindulging on dialogue, some of their conversations felt too simplistic at points, as if DuVernay was stressing for a sense of whimsy from the actors in some scenes.
The chemistry between Meg and Calvin is pleasant enough but a bit “Disney sitcom” here and there. McCabe’s performance as Charles is engaging and fun to watch, especially when The It enters his mind. But it’s Reid’s performance as Meg that’ll prove to be the most memorable for the audience. She conveys strength, stubbornness and a genuine aura of affection all at once, and she delivers some powerful emotional scenes with her supporting cast.
While I can’t say the movie talks down to its young audience, there’s a sense of camp from it I can’t quite shake. This is undoubtedly an extremely difficult story to put on screen, and there certainly are scenes where I truly felt like I was reading the book again- particularly when the trio arrive on the sinister planet Camazotz, and contend with the tempting illusions it creates.
Overall, I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised that a trippy and unusually challenging YA novel would result in a nearly equally trippy and difficult film. Hell, L’Engle herself mentioned in interviews that numerous publishers turned her book down to start because they couldn’t comprehend it.
While I’m not demanding for Disney to make a page-for-page adaption of Wrinkle, there are a few aspects of the original story that were left on the cutting room floor, and really could have helped to add a better sense of context to the film’s plot. There are moments in this film that are just drop dead gorgeous, and truly do come off like the empowerment story for black girls this director set out to make. (Although, while I am fine with Mrs. Whatsit’s transformation not being the horse-like creature I pictured in my head, she looks way too much like the Spring Sprite from Fantasia 2000.)
I can certainly appreciate the value of these messages, but the tone of the movie goes out of its way to hammer everything home with a mallet. Characters spend more time delivering dramatic speeches about the power of love and courage than they do explaining the concepts the original story explored, and the clunky dialogue makes it worse. (Charles Wallace was thankfully the sole exception and stole many scenes easily.)
Still, those messages of love and courage are strong enough in DuVernay’s version of A Wrinkle In Time that I think young audiences will probably get a kick out of it. The Ms’s were charming but way too over the top for me to take entirely seriously, and Reid’s performance here proves she has the talent to go far in Hollywood. So I guess I’d say I did enjoy it in spite of its faults, but as a film, it’s a cluttered mess and it’s not very good- and that may be more the fault of studio overreach than DuVernay necessarily.
And regardless, this movie is still such a bizarre experience that if you are a fan of the original book, I’d still suggest checking it out and deciding for yourself how you feel. If you’ve already tripped out watching this thing, write to https://twitter.com/official_FAN and tell us what you thought!