There’s so much to like about Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time. It’s the rare family adventure movie with a young African-American girl in the lead role. It puts a premium on diversity. It’s unafraid to earnestly proclaim that love can drive out darkness. And yet it also carries the burdens of trying to turn its source material, Madeleine L’Engle 1962 award-winning novel, into a regular feature. The result is a film that always feels like it’s taking two steps back for every step forward. For every moment of colorful imagination, you have a CGI overload that makes the characters feel untethered from their surroundings. For every honest bit of character development, you have stilted dialogue that falls flat. Instead of leaping through adventure, the film frequently feels like it’s stumbling from scene to scene.
Meg Murry (Storm Reid) has been depressed ever since her brilliant scientist father Alex (Chris Pine) mysteriously disappeared four years ago. Alex and his wife/Meg’s mother Mrs. Murry (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) were studying quantum entanglement and the possibility of “wrinkling” time in order to close great distances. One day, Meg’s adopted brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) introduces Meg and her friend Calvin (Levi Miller) to the strange trinity of Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), who want to help reunite the Murry family and help Meg find her lost father. But in order to do that, Meg will need to conquer her inner pain and anger.
On paper, Meg is a terrific character, and Reid does an admirable job of playing the opposite of the “Chosen One” figure. In family movies, and especially adventure stories, you tend to get a bit of a Mary Sue/Billy Lou character who’s good at everything and is the hero for a reason outside a minor flaw or two. But Meg is deeply flawed, filled with anger and resentment over the bullying she’s encountered after the loss of her father. There’s nothing “special” about her, which makes her a far more compelling protagonist because she has to work harder to grow as a person. We want to see her find the love that will allow her to “be a warrior,” as Mrs. Which says.
Unfortunately, the framework for the story always feels like it’s never truly free to be a fulfilling adventure or an offbeat family movie. The story itself is kind of bizarre, but it always feels like it’s coming into conflict with Disney-fication where it’s meant to fit a certain mold. That mold then clashes with DuVernay’s bright, vibrant aesthetic that occasionally yields impressive moments where you feel the movie is free to be its own thing like Mrs. Whatsit turning into a giant lettuce leaf and the kids going for a ride on her back. That’s bizarre, but in a unique, lovable way, and I wish A Wrinkle in Time had more of that feeling.
Instead, it’s a movie that never really finds its footing, so it’s harder to get on board with the story. Whether it’s the awkward needledrops or just the difficulty of pulling from L’Engle’s book, A Wrinkle in Time always feels discombobulated, eager to please a wide audience, but also trying to be a little weird and unique. That’s an admirable goal, and I wish the movie had pulled it off.
A Wrinkle in Time is more admirable when taken piecemeal rather than as a total success. There are elements I absolutely love, and DuVernay should be commended for trying not to copy successful formulas but rather make a blockbuster movie on her terms. Like Black Panther, this is a movie with a massive budget, but it promotes diversity and representation, and if just one African-American girl sees this film and comes out feeling like a hero, it will have been worth every penny.