As far as film criticism goes, it's a bit of a cheat to trot the director of the movie out before a screening, as Ava DuVernay did ahead of A Wrinkle in Time. It's not that her little welcome speech -- declaring the movie is for "the kid in you," for "young people and people who are young at heart" -- was unwelcome, but it does color how you watch the movie, as opposed to letting the work speak for itself. For the record, I'm cool with it. (And wonder why more directors don't pre-record an introduction, a Welcome! Here's why I made this! I hope you enjoy! to play after the previews.)
Anyway, DuVernay gave us her sales pitch, ebulliently explaining that she wanted to make something "sweet and simple," like Escape to Witch Mountain and The NeverEnding Story, a film for children and pre-teens, despite how all-ages this has seemingly been advertised. "It's a dark world," she said. She wants kids to "be the light."
In that sense, she succeeded. Having dealt with weightier subject matter in Selma and 13th, DuVernay skews very young with A Wrinkle in Time. She even has her own Falkor the Luckdragon sequence, with the kiddos at the center of her movie riding a giant lettuce dragon that has Reese Witherspoon's face.
That comes later, though. The story begins with Meg Murry (played by Storm Reid), who has become a reclusive and resentful outcast in the four years since her scientist father (Chris Pine) went missing. Mr. Murry was conducting experiments to travel space and time when hemysteriously disappeared, leaving behind Meg and her little brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), a precocious spark plug who was a hoot with my audience, though his genius may grate on others. In early scenes with the Murrys (which includes doe-eyed Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Mrs. Murry), DuVernay creates onscreen a world that is fantastic in that it looks a lot like our own, grounded and diverse and real, but with a little more twinkle.
DuVernay and screenwriter Jennifer Lee (Frozen) don't introduce the truly fantastical elements into the plot in a way that makes much sense, but instead throw stuff at you and expect you not to question it, to just keep up and go along with it -- and it's all fun enough that you do. First, an appearance by Mrs. Whatsit in the night, a spunky, red-wigged Witherspoon, who hints that she may know something about Mr. Murry's whereabouts. Soon after, Meg and Charles Wallace and a school friend, Calvin (Levi Miller), stumble on an abandoned house where they meet Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), who only speaks in quotations from Rumi to OutKast. These celestial spirit guides eventually reveal to Meg that her father is still alive, having transported somewhere in another universe via tesseract (which works, we're told, by wrinkling time into a fifth-dimensional portal).
Before setting out on a their search and rescue mission, Meg meets the third Mrs W, Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), two-stories tall -- finally Oprah is realized true to size -- and with glittered eyebrows. Winfrey, perhaps because the role dictates it, feels worrisomely detached at first, but she's at her best when acting directly opposite Reid, embracing both the character of Meg and the young actress under her wing. The gang gets to bopping around the universe -- encountering whimsical talking flowers and a man-bunned Zach Galifianakis -- before winding up on the planet Camazotz, which is run by an evil energy called The IT. This is also the point in the movie where the Mrs. fall out, and A Wrinkle in Time is worse for it.
Disney has created a very lean adaptation of Madeleine L'Engle's seminal 1962 children's book, to the point where I spent much of the film's runtime reminding myself -- when a central plot point was never fully explained, when things seemed to happen just willy-nilly -- that this is meant to be sweet and simple and for kids. Perhaps that was me excusing too much, though, especially as the movie enters its frustrating third act. You'd expect this final stretch, as Meg nears a climactic reunion with her long-lost father, would be full of tension and emotion. Yet, aside from a few well-structured set pieces boasting odd appearances by Scandal's Bellamy Young and Michael Peña, the trust of the story gets lost, somehow both hurried and dragging along as it reaches a heavy-handed conclusion.
Whereas L'Engle's novel dealt with hefty themes of mind control and conformity, if not full-on fascism and totalitarianism, this take on A Wrinkle in Time is very simply about learning to love yourself. Sure, you could watch this for what is essentially Ava DuVernay's Drag Race -- to see all of the fabulous wigs and all of the different ways they glued rhinestones to Oprah's face -- but there is one moment towards the end of the movie that has eclipsed many of my grievances. In attempting to avoid much in the way of spoilers, I'll only say that it's a moment when Meg, somewhere between an impassioned plea and a self-confident realization, shouts, "You should love me because I deserve to be loved!" Hearing a young, black girl say this -- in the first ever $100 million blockbuster directed by a woman of color, no less -- is powerful. It's needed, and it's long overdue.