Four years ago, Dr. Alex Murry (Chris Pine) vanished in a bizarre physics accident—as the mighty blue Tick noted, “Science is not an exact science.” The heroine of A Wrinkle in Time, Meg (Storm Reid, decked out with a pair of glasses and a flannel shirt meant to make her look plain), is consoled in her fatherlessness by her indifferently drawn mother (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and her brilliant little brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe).
Director Ava DuVernay shoots the early scenes of this adaptation in L.A.’s West Adams, a picturesque old neighborhood architecturally similar to Highland Park. The movie is getting on its feet when the supernatural emerges: first, a home invasion by Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) to announce that news of Meg’s plight has been received by her space sisters. She is joined by the quilt-covered Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling)—sadly, no relation to the Doctor. And then comes the arrival of the large-and-in-charge Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey). The three teach Meg how to “tesser”—to fold space in search of her father. Dad is easily found, considering the size of universe; look for him on planet Camazotz, the home of a primal evil called, like our zany pal Pennywise, IT.
Wrinkle‘s author, Madeleine L’Engle, was a devout Episcopalian, but her book is more Manichean. It was the house style of the Cold War, considering a battle of forces of light and darkness. The spiritual side was up front, in its quote from John 1:5 in praise of the power of light. This has been removed to make the movie non-denominational. Inclusivity is never wrong, but what’s replaced the religiousness is a rat’s nest of slogans, and exhortations to positive thinking. Meg’s boyfriend Calvin (Levi Miller, Disney’s least threatening boy since the closure of the Mickey Mouse Club) all but tells Meg “I want to empower you.” When the three women recite the names of those who fought darkness on earth, it’s a roster of secular saints—Madame Curie is in there. It’s a live reading of inspirational posters on the walls of a high school library.
This movie is going to hit a lot of aging children hard—Wrinkle was in many way the first YA nerd book. Meg was the awkward heroine to many bright rejects, and Reid doesn’t let the character down. But the trio of stars bulldoze the picture, and DuVernay can’t coordinate this bunch who barely seem to be in the same movie—there’s no serious affection or tension between the women. They pose and smile.
In the book, the three were perhaps the witches from Macbeth. They had a shadowy side, like Rilkean angels. (Mrs. Who, a walking Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, recites “When shall we three meet again?”) But it’s hard to take even star women seriously in costumes apparently designed by Sid and Marty Krofft. Of these three interstellar witchy-poos, Oprah comes out the worst, in a starfish wig the color of oatmeal, eyes encrusted with glitter and blown up to Godzilla size by CG. Witherspoon is wrapped in sheets and twinkling, like a bliss-whipped Hari Krishna. Kaling sports supersized jodhpurs that accentuate her hips. Bad enough when she stands still, but then the script requires her to run in them.
Not many interesting planets here, either. Patriotic Californians will feel pride in space paradises that look like the Golden State, from sloping fields of yellow weeds to redwood forests—even if the digital color has been cranked up to retina burn with neon flowers and strobing purple heather. It’s shot in New Zealand, but you’d never know.
Bad movies happen to good people. And reactions to the errant awfulness of A Wrinkle in Time may not represent the alt-right’s slander or white backlash from Black Panther‘s wonderful world of color. DuVernay must go on—the intimacy in the scenes of father and daughter are touching.
And even in this tempest of pixels, requiring the ensemble to awe-gaze so many times at so many light shows, Reid is a presence. She’s sharp, tough and funny—as in a scene where IT tempts Meg with a vision of a cool version of herself, and we see Reid sauntering around, being a diffident tween. Ultimately, the multi-colored style of this movie will triumph. This film’s failure won’t even be a wrinkle in the progress to come.
A Wrinkle in Time
PG, 109 Mins.