Film & Television

A Wrinkle in Time: Special Effects Distract from a Heroine Whose Time Has Come

If you’ve ever had a sneaky feeling that Oprah was a little larger than life, A Wrinkle in Time, the dazzling new movie by Ava DuVernay (Selma and 13th), will confirm your suspicions.

When Winfrey first appears, she towers over the rest of the cast, including fellow celestial beings Reese Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling and human children Storm Reid, Deric McCabe, and Levi Miller. Although she soon rightsizes, physically at least, Oprah’s presence remains a focal point — one, unfortunately, that often gets in the way of the story. Especially when her character, “Mrs. Which,” tends to share the kind of wisdom we expect from Winfrey herself: “You just have to find the right frequency and have faith in who you are,” and ” Do you realize how many events and choices had to occur since the birth of the universe leading up to the making of you?”

The problem is that as big and bedazzled (we’ll address that a little later) as Winfrey is, A Wrinkle in Time is rightly someone else’s story. That someone is Meg Murray (played by the exceptionally talented young Reid). Since Madeleine L’Engle published the novel in 1962, Meg has been as archetypal a heroine for young girls interested in science and math as Jo March was for girls who wanted to be writers.

A Wrinkle in Time, written between the years of 1959 and 1960, was rejected by more than two dozen publishers. It was a difficult story to pigeon hole. It dealt with religion, but also quantum physics. It was a bit too frightening for children, but its protagonist was a bit too young for adults. And, of course, that youthful protagonist was female, an anomaly for science fiction. Farrar, Straus & Giroux (until then a publisher of adult books) finally took a chance on it and the rest is literary history. Winner of the Newbery Medal, the book has never been out of print. It has been both praised and condemned for its spiritual (specifically Christian) content, and many have pointed to its allusions to and condemnation of communism. It holds a firm place on the “must read” lists of librarians and educators (Chelsea Clinton praised it in her speech at the 2016 Democratic Convention). But, with its reliance on imaginary worlds, it has always seemed too challenging to film.

Of course, that was before Disney handed DuVernay a $100 million budget (the largest ever assigned a filmmaker who is African-American and a woman) and the use of their state-of-the-art CGI imagineers. So, we visit fantastical planets with fields of chattering flowers, fly through space on the back of “Mrs. Whatsit” (Witherspoon) after she morphs into a huge leafy magic carpet, and travel through time and space to a twisted world under the spell of purely evil “the It.”

There are scenes that are quite beautiful and several that are too dark for younger viewers. But, they don’t bring us closer to Meg and her story. Because, all of this largesse is in its way as distracting as the forty-foot tall Oprah. A Wrinkle in Time is a fantasy adventure, but it’s also a fairly cerebral favorite of preteen nerds.

Quite frankly, less would have been more. In fact, the scenes that are most effective are those between the humans that examine family relationships.

Like so many children’s classics (think Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Mary Poppins), adventures begin when the grownups go away. In A Wrinkle in Time, Meg’s parents are renowned NASA scientists, who have discovered a way to travel through the universe by “tessering,” or wrinkling time. After a sweet flashback between father (Chris Pine) and daughter, we find ourselves in the brutal world of contemporary middle school and learn that Dr. Murray has been missing for four years. Meg, once an exemplary student, is awkward, sullen, and bullied by a group of mean girls. Her younger brother Charles Wallace (McCabe) acts out with more bravado. And their poor mother (GuGu Mbatha-Raw from Belle does the best she can as a suddenly single parent who’s called to the principal’s office more often than she’d like.

“It was a dark and stormy night” (those are the actual, if perhaps tongue-in-cheek, first words of L’Engle’s novel) when Meg and Charles Wallace — soon joined by Meg’s kind-hearted and conveniently handsome classmate Calvin (Levi) — meet the three “Mrs.” and learn that their father is trapped somewhere out in the universe and it’s up to them to find him. Their odyssey includes tessering to the planet of Uriel (home of the aforementioned flowers), to the unbalanced cave of a medium (Zach Galifanakas), to the strange automaton-inhabited planet of Camazotz, and into the center of “the It” itself.

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