OnScreen Review: "A Wrinkle in Time"

Ken Jones

  • Chief Film Critic

A Wrinkle in Time is a classic children’s book that I never read growing up, but was keenly aware of its existence, one of a number of books that slipped through the cracks for me growing up. I had purchased the book on my Kindle a few years ago with the intention of reading it eventually. With the release of the film adaptation, I decided to cram this week and read the book between Wednesday evening and Friday morning before catching a Friday matinee of the film. The previews of the film had caught my eye for months and interested me, and, given the quality of Selma, I wanted to see what director Ava DuVernay would do with the project. Unfortunately, I was disappointed with the outcome.

Let’s get one thing out of the way first. This film is being hailed for what it means for representation and diversity. Any criticism I may have of this film is unrelated to that aspect of the film. As Emily Yoshida summed up perfectly on Twitter, “What if A Wrinkle in Time is bad AND representation matters?” Having seen the movie, this is where I come down on the matter.

At the center of this story is Meg Murray (Storm Reid), a young teenager whose father (Chris Pine), an astrophysicist, went missing four years ago. She and her adopted younger brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), and Meg’s classmate Calvin (Levi Miller) are swept up into an intergalactic journey to find and rescue Meg’s father. Three beings known as Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey) take them on this journey only to discover that Meg’s father is trapped on a hostile planet known Camazotz by a dark force known only as The It.

While I think there are substantial problems with the film, there are some positive qualities to this science fantasy film. First, the visuals of the film are mostly pretty stunning. The film features some magnificent locales and vibrant color palettes. The first planet they travel to features wide plains and giant mountains and colorful flowers that the characters talk to. At one point they are flying on the back of a creature and more of the planet is observed and it reminded me of Avatar and the floating mountains in that movie. There is also some great costume design going on for Kaling, Witherspoon, and Winfrey; also, for Zach Galifianakis when he shows up as the Happy Medium. The film does an excellent job on Camazotz of portraying a sense of eeriness at all choice being eliminated for the inhabitants there. What is attempting to be passed off as a utopia is anything but. I also loved the eventual reunion between father and daughter on Camazotz, it was one of the best acted moments of the film.

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Storm Reid is a promising young actress. She gives a very impressive performance as a teenager whose world has been turned upside down with the void left in her life by her father’s disappearance. That she would be willing to go to practically any length to get him back is totally believable. She does a terrific job of playing up Meg’s faults and insecurities as well as the connection that she has with her younger brother, Charles Wallace. I also enjoyed Mindy Kaling’s casting as Mrs. Who, the being who only talks in quotes of other people; as someone who constantly quotes movies, she was a character I could relate to. Michael Pena, who almost always seems to put in good work regardless of what he is doing, gets a delicious little role.

While I found Reid to be a breath of fresh air, the same could not be said for the other child actors in this film. Having finished the book mere hours before I saw the film, I came away thinking Charles Wallace was a well-written character in the book. Unfortunately, what I found precocious and charming in the book I found utterly insufferable in the film. And the same goes for Calvin, the thinnest written character in the film. Why he comes along is laid out early on (diplomacy, he’s a good talker), but it is underserved here compared to the book and does little to advance the story. Instead, his major purpose is to make the most awkward romantic advances toward Meg as humanly possible. You can’t exactly blame the kids in this situation. I’m not expecting the next Daniel Day-Lewis or anything but casting roles for child actors are so crucial and if you don’t nail them then you’re in trouble, especially in a movie like this where the kids are front and center. DuVernay and the casting department did not put McCabe or Miller in a position to succeed. Charles Wallace is a vital character to the plot and outside of Meg, that was the one character I would say they had to nail because the actor needs to portray a good and an evil Charles Wallace, and evil Charles Wallace falls almost completely flat.

Also, I think Oprah Winfrey and Reese Witherspoon are miscast in their roles. Oprah is fine, but she doesn’t bring the command of presence to the character that Mrs. Which needs; she’s doesn’t take anything away, but she doesn’t bring anything special to the role either. As for Witherspoon, I’ve enjoyed her in several films, but something about her was just off here.

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In fact, several aspects of this film just felt off. The story is messy and disjointed. Most of the opening scenes on Earth feel rushed and condensed to get to the bigger stuff later. The only problem is that the source material is a little light on bigger stuff that translates to the big screen. The book is fine, but I think even its biggest enthusiasts would say that it is rather light reading. The ending blows up the final confrontation to something akin to a children’s version of a final battle from a superhero movie, but a superhero movie like Green Lantern rather than a good one.

The book also puts some Christian themes and references front and center in the text, directly quoting from the Bible in places. It’s no surprise that most of that has been scrubbed out of the film. I don’t raise that point to stoke passions in the culture war, just to point out that it was a central part of the author’s point of view, and that is backgrounded in the film. Some of that still comes through in the themes that DuVernay chooses to focus on in Meg’s personal growth through this movie, but one aspect of the book that I liked was how L’engle made the fight between good and evil a conflict with cosmic and spiritual dimensions.

Disney has adapted a lot of children’s literature into live-action movies with mixed results: The three Narnia films, John Carter, and The BFG come to mind. I had high hopes for A Wrinkle in Time. I was excited to see what DuVernay could do with a big budget and working with a major studio. Despite a strong central performance from relative newcomer Storm Reid and a few glimpses of something good, it’s a muddled mess and a disappointment. And I hope I never hear the word “Tesser” again.

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars