In adaptations of children’s books, there’s a broad spectrum of how they turn out. The best ones are usually made by talented filmmakers with a deep love for the source material (like Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox or Martin Scorsese’s Hugo). The worst are all flash with almost no understanding of what made that story resonate with kids (like Steven Spielberg’s The BFG and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland).
Ava DuVernay’s version of A Wrinkle in Time is far closer to greatness, but comes up just short. For that, I blame Disney. When it works, it’s because it’s getting specific. Even though the story hews pretty close to Madeleine L’Engle’s novel, its details are extremely personal. While it has universal themes, this is a movie aimed especially at African-American girls. Meg Murry (Storm Reid) is a gifted student whose once vibrant spirit went out when her father (Chris Pine) disappeared four years ago.
Her much younger brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) is as precocious as they come. He’s supposed to be a child genius, but his performance is truly grating. He talks a mile a minute and shows up in nearly every scene that’s not a flashback. His schtick eventually beats you into submission. Unlike other annoying kids in film history, you still care about him when he’s in danger.
The siblings transport to other dimensions with the help of Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) and Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), magical beings that guide them on their journey to find their father.
While I appreciate that the movie is under two hours, it doesn’t do much world-building, as it hops from planet to planet on their quest. It’s a showcase for the special effects, gorgeous locations and stunt casting (including Zach Galifianakis and Michael Pena showing off his malevolent side). A lot of the movie’s themes about light overcoming darkness and love overcoming hate are too generic for a movies whose gift is its specificity.
The script, written by Disney Animation resident Jennifer Lee and re-written by Jeff Stockwell (Bridge to Terabithia), has moments of brilliance. And while it touches on resonant themes, it could have said a lot more about the ugliness of the world in 2018. That it doesn’t feels like Disney hedging its bets against accusations that its big family movie is too political. Absent, too, are the explicit religious connections of the original story, dropped in favor of COEXIST platitudes.
Still, the movie is often dazzling. For better or worse, this is one of the odder transitions from the world of indies into blockbuster filmmaking. This is the key for DuVernay to unlock doors to bigger budgets and dream projects. Hopefully the next one leads to an even better movie with a tighter script.