The highest praise you can bestow on a kids’ movie is that adults can enjoy it, too. Is that just us grown-ups being selfish? Not really, because if a movie is aimed at children, but is sophisticated enough for adults, that usually means it’s not talking down to its target audience. It gives kids credit for their own level of sophistication. See just about every Pixar movie for the best examples of this sort of filmmaking.
A Wrinkle in Time truly is a kids’ movie. It’s not meant for me, so it feels mean-spirited to beat up on it too much. There are perhaps millions of kids out there who might have a cultural earthquake happen inside them when they see this picture. But, the movie does a disservice to the kids it wants to entertain. Aside from the gigantic budget and the production value that goes along with it, A Wrinkle in Time doesn’t offer its audiences (either the kids or the adults) much sophistication at all. The story is muddled and at times downright boring. It’s also too episodic to be engaging. The mechanics of both the movie’s plot and visual style are clunky, which is particularly surprising since the director, Ava DuVernay, is responsible for one of the most emotionally moving and important films of the decade, 2014’s Selma.
Based on the beloved, award-winning book published in 1962, A Wrinkle in Time tells the story of 13-year-old Meg Murry, her 5-year-old child prodigy brother, Charles Wallace, and her classmate, Calvin. Meg and Charles Wallace’s father, the brilliant astrophysicist Dr. Alex Murry, has been missing for four years. The trio of kids agree to travel into the farthest reaches of space to find Dr. Murry when they get a strange visit from the three Mrs.: Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which. These three women are mysterious beings who use the power of “tessering” – think wormholes – to travel through time and space. They tell Meg that her father discovered this powerful means of travel, but that he is being held prisoner by an evil force known simply as “The IT.”
The most exciting thing about A Wrinkle in Time is the intersectional diversity at play both in front of and behind the camera. DuVernay is the first woman of color to direct a movie with a budget of 100 million dollars. That’s a huge milestone that we should celebrate, and Disney deserves some credit for making it happen. They should be encouraged to do it more, considering Disney has turned over to white men the five movies that the studio either has released or has announced in the Star Wars saga.
Our hero, Meg, is a biracial girl. That’s the kind of protagonist that Hollywood has rarely championed, especially for a mega-budget sci-fi/action-adventure blockbuster. Much like with last year’s Wonder Woman, A Wrinkle in Time feels like a huge shift in the (pop) cultural landscape. Girls who could see grown-up versions of themselves on the screen last year in the character Diana Prince can go to the movies this year and see a hero their own age.
The fantastical places we see with Meg and her companions are wonderfully realized. The visual design for the landscapes of the three or four worlds the kids visit on their quest are unique and memorable. If only the same could be said for what takes place in these settings. Screenwriters Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell never succeed in creating a coherent narrative that rises above a this-happened-then-this-happened-then-this-happened kind of storytelling.
So, in one sequence we get Mrs. Whatsit – played with characteristic effervescence by Reese Witherspoon – transforming into a cheesy-looking CGI creature that can fly. She becomes big enough so that the three kids can fit on her back, and they ride through the air in pursuit of a creature that might lead them to Dr. Murry. Calvin accidentally falls off at one point, and Mrs. Whatsit must attempt a daring rescue. Next, our heroes and the Mrs. travel to see The Happy Medium (a droll Zach Galifianakis). He's a psychic who might be able to provide answers on the whereabouts of Meg’s father. Then the kids are transported to the creepiest suburb in the universe, where the local children all bounce identical balls in unison before being called in to dinner at the exact same moment.
Each of these events is fine on its own, but one never quite leads logically to the next. As a result, the entire movie is just a collection of vaguely unsatisfying sequences that are disconnected from one another. DuVernay’s direction is also muddled in the action sequences and overly reliant on extreme closeups during dialog. Visually, A Wrinkle in Time is a movie that never quite finds its footing. Adding to the feeling that the filmmakers weren’t sure how to make the story coalesce, several of the vignettes are stitched together using saccharine pop songs from the likes of artists like Sia and Sade. A cynic (which I am) might suspect the inclusion of these songs is more about increasing soundtrack sales than anything else.
Maybe that’s another reason I found it difficult to connect with A Wrinkle in Time. Whatever the strategy behind including those songs, the last thing you can say about the tone of the movie itself is that it’s cynical. Above all, it’s about believing in yourself and how that can lead to incredible results. The message of the movie is optimistic, which in itself isn’t a bad thing, but here that optimism is almost relentless. That mentality is personified by Meg’s little brother, the child prodigy Charles Wallace. Both the character and the performance by 9-year-old Deric McCabe are sickeningly precocious.
I’m both an adult and a cynic, so an earnest kids’ movie isn’t meant for me. It’s meant for a generation of kids who can look up to the movie’s hero, Meg, as well as to Storm Reid, the young actress who embodies Meg with both vulnerability and strength. If A Wrinkle in Time fortifies even one little girl’s self-esteem by providing her with a powerful on-screen role model, so much the better. It’s just disappointing that such a magnificent role model couldn’t be surrounded by a better movie.
Why it got 2.5 stars:
- A Wrinkle in Time feels like a giant missed opportunity. The diversity, both in front of and behind the camera, is exciting, but the execution of the movie itself is deeply flawed. There's not much to the story, and the strength of the spectacle is hit-or-miss at best.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- The most engaging part of the movie comes late when the kids find themselves on a crowded beach talking to a man who could either be friend or foe. Michael Peña plays the mysterious man, and he does a good job of being creepy. Even though I had the most fun with this section, I have to point out that during the sequence, one of our heroes makes an inexplicable decision to leave the group.
- Speaking of inexplicable, one of the movie's biggest flaws is its refusal to explain basic plot points. How certain characters end up in certain places, other than it serves the story, is the most frustrating example.
- Seeing as how Meg's father and mother are both brilliant scientists, and Charles Wallace is a child prodigy, I needed more science in A Wrinkle in Time. The way Dr. Murry, the kids, and the Mrs. all travel through time and space basically boils down to astral projection, and no one ever bothers to explain how any of it works. Not getting bogged down in the nuts-and-bolts can free a movie and invite you to use your imagination. Here, it's just irritating.
Close encounters with people who don't know how to act in a movie theater:
- I attended this one with seven other people, and it was almost a full house. I could never get a good read on the vibe of the audience as a whole during the movie, but there was a palpable sense of disappointment in the room when it ended.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- Two actors I really respect, Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland, have teamed up with an Italian director, Paolo Virzì, for his American film debut. It's called The Leisure Seeker, and it's a road movie with Mirren and Sutherland playing a married couple, driving across America in an old RV.