David’s Review: A WRINKLE IN TIME

David Reddish
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Though not the disastrous and abysmal 2003 miniseries, Ava DuVernay’s long-awaited adaptation of the classic Madeline L’Engle novel A Wrinkle in Time rolls across the finish line rather than charges over it. Though it sports a prestigious cast and some remarkable effects, fans of the novel and casual moviegoers alike will remember it less for its triumph than as another entry in the pantheon of missed opportunities when it comes to translating young adult novels to the big screen.

For those that either missed or have forgotten the popular book read in sixth grade classrooms everywhere, the story concerns the adolescent Meg Murry (Storm Reid) and her young brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) in search of their long-disappeared father (Chris Pine). The sudden appearance of three strange women, Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey) starts Meg, Charles and their friend Calvin (Levi Miller) on a galactic journey to rescue Professor Murray and save the universe from planet of pure evil.

While the premise might sound like the basis for an action thriller, director DuVernay wisely avoids the genre cliches, focusing instead on the novels more subtle themes of love and femininity. A movie like this hinges on the talents its young performers, and Miller, McCabe and Reid all give convincing, mature performances that convey the complexity of their roles.  Reid and McCabe in particular bring a good deal of gravity to the proceedings (especially considering their ages) and should have great careers ahead if they remain interested in the business, and DuVernay deserves a good deal of praise for ushering children so young into such dynamic performances.

Ironically, the adult performers don’t fare as well. Witherspoon grates from her first entrance onward. Once considered one of the best actresses of her generation, here it feels almost like she’s fallen back on a shtick as the gossipy, motormouthed Mrs. Whatsit. Then again, the screenplay by Jennifer Lee doesn’t help much. Lee & DuVernay seem to have boiled the three compelling Mrs. W’s down to female archetypes, and Wishterspoon suffers the brunt as the bubble-headed cluck. Winfrey brings the same kind of earth-goddess maternity to her role as she has in films like The Color Purple or Beloved (or, let’s face it, her talk show), which makes her performance effective if a bit predictable. Kaling fares better with a more complicated role: Mrs. Who doesn’t use her own words, instead speaking in famous quotations to express her thoughts. Somehow the actress manages to find a pathos in her character and a genuine personality, though the movie doesn’t provide her with much to go on. Likewise, Gugu Mbatha-Raw does a lot with very little as Dr. Kate Murry, the abandoned wife and put-upon mother of Charles Wallace and Meg, who also manages to have a career in particle physics while playing single mom.

The men too, have some good moments, beginning with Pine. Though years too young for the part, as fans of the novel will no-doubt note, Pine displays a maturity and masculine grace hereto unseen in his filmography. His scenes with Reid have a real power to them, as do his moments with Mbatha-Raw. Zach Galifianakis shows up as a somewhat androgynous psychic, and manages to enliven the plot with a few laughs, and a few moments of emotional power. Michael Pena shows up as the Man With Red Eyes, one of the novel’s key roles, though his part has been so cut from the novel, audience members might wonder why he even bothered, or just what DuVernay had in mind in the first place.

Which brings up the real elephant in the room. A book this widely read will have longtime fans flocking to the theatre, which should help box office receipts. On the other hand, it places the film under a higher level of scrutiny which, unfortunately, it cannot withstand. The integrated, adoptive, multi-racial family approach has already sparked much discussion, though it doesn’t seem to hurt the film in any way. That said, fans of the book will remember the way in which Charles Wallace’s birth helped frame his character–and his genuine creepiness. The integrated family approach loses some of that in a film which already shies away from the scarier elements of the novel. DuVernay and Pena play the Man With Red Eyes for laughs rather than scares, which stifles the rising stakes of the plot at several key moments. Gone are Charles Wallace and Meg’s twin brothers–not that anyone will really miss them–as is the pivotal character of Aunt Beast. In jettisoning the Aunt Beast subplot, Lee and DuVernay deliver critical damage to the plot. Whereas in the novel a key failure of Meg and Professor Murry drives up the tension and almost costs Charles Wallace his life, the film soldiers right over it. As a result, the effects-heavy climax doesn’t have the profundity it really should, and the movie loses two key themes from the novel. Whereas the literary Meg had to learn that parents, too, have flaws and step into a new role of maturity and leadership, the film’s Meg just seems to do as she’s told.

Worst of all though, the movie drops L’Engle’s richest–and most disturbing–theme. While the movie retains the novel’s conflict as a battle between good and evil, it misses the grander scope: the battle for good and evil doesn’t start and end within our hearts or minds. Rather, it ensnares every element of reality: flowers, animals, planets and the cells of our body. In L’Engle’s mind, nothing is safe from darkness, and only evangelists of love can help fight back the spiny snares of evil. Though the darkness can never really be defeated, religious figures, philosophers, scientists and artists–those that preach love and knowledge–can defend creation from the unyielding tide.

No doubt DuVernay–a director has proven herself a gifted artist–would like to do the same with this movie. She doesn’t quite get there, both because she focuses too much on her effects and visuals, and because she seems intimidated by the novel’s own philosophies. In fact, this version of A Wrinkle in Time shows a number of signs of late studio interference, both in terms of scenes shown in trailers and promotional spots that don’t appear in the finished movie, and thanks to a few dubious, pixelated backgrounds which hint at last-minute blue screen reshoots. Maybe Disney backed away from DuVernay’s vision at the last minute, or maybe the director had just failed to wrangle a story this profound and thoughtful.

In any case, what does land on the screen, for all its flaws, isn’t bad per se. The visuals, the performers, and the real moments of excitement make it an entertaining and likable movie, albeit a frustrating one. The film would have worked better had DuVernay shown the same kind of daring underpinnings that L’Engle did in her 1962 novel. Consider: a sequence involving a world of complete conformity features identical houses, women with identical hair styles, and similarly-dressed children bouncing balls in perfect unison against a backdrop that looks almost exactly like a neighborhood in the Disney-owned, planned community of Celebration, Florida.

No doubt L’Engle would have had something profound to say about such a striking image. Unfortunately, this movie–for one reason or another–doesn’t.