At a time when Disney would rather fund suffocatingly faithful (and/or toxically garish) “live-action” remakes of classic films than roll the dice on original stories for a new generation of kids, there’s something refreshing — and downright beautiful — about what Ava DuVernay has done with “A Wrinkle in Time.” Less satisfying than the recent “Pete’s Dragon,” but told with a similar degree of revisionist zeal, this eye-popping adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s beloved 1962 novel scrubs away the Christian overtones of the source material in favor of some distinctly 21st century humanism.
Jesus is out, self-worth is in, and it’s coming for your children via an $103-million orgy of special effects that starts with a giant astral projection of Oprah and only gets more insane from there. At one point, Reese Witherspoon transforms into a giant piece of flying kale. It almost doesn’t matter that the movie is too emotionally prescriptive to have any real power, or too high on imagination to leave any room for wonder; DuVernay evinces such faith in who she is and what she’s doing that “A Wrinkle in Time” remains true to itself even when everything on screen reads false.
And that, alas, is quite often. But things begin well enough, DuVernay infusing the earthbound opening bits with the sense of broken promises and boundless possibilities that stretch across the entire film. Meg Murry (an appropriately nonplussed Storm Reid, phenomenal during the most dramatic scenes) is a tetchy tween girl who hasn’t been able to make sense of the world since her astrophysicist father (Chris Pine) disappeared four years earlier. Bullied by a seriously evil clique of popular kids and misunderstood by the school principal (André Holland, in a cameo that clearly wants to be something more), our young heroine is starting to run out of patience.
Meg’s mother (a severely under-used Gugu Mbatha-Raw) can at least take solace in her memories, but it’s her brilliant little brother (Deric McCabe) whose coping mechanism could offer them a chance to find their dad. A precocious kid named Charles Wallace, Meg’s younger brother has recently been palling around with a bubbly woman who refers to herself as Mrs. Whatsit (Witherspoon), and speaks — as most of the adult characters do — in a mush of truisms and riddles.
Mrs. Whatsit then introduces us to Oprah’s Mrs. Which and Mindy Kaling’s Mrs. Who, an astral projection who exclusively communicates via inspirational quotes, citing everyone from Kahlil Gabran to Lin-Manuel Miranda as she offers her advice. It’s a cute touch that starts to feel like a damning self-critique, as every generic nugget of wisdom reinforces the feeling that Meg is more of a vessel than a person.
These intergalactic beings claim that Dr. Murray has found a way to slip through the fabric of the universe, that he’s being held in the grip of a great evil in a distant dimension, and that they have the power to help point the kids in the right direction. The next thing you know, Meg, Charles Wallace, and the pouty boy Meg has a crush on (Levi Miller) are zapped into the cosmos, as Jennifer Lee’s script takes them on an epic journey into a celestial wonderland. Up the rabbit hole, as opposed to down; through idyllic forest worlds, demented beaches, and even an unbalanced planet of floating rocks that’s presided over by Zach Galifianakis.
At times, the movie feels like its own Disneyland theme park ride. At others, “A Wrinkle in Time” more closely resembles an 109-minute informercial for some benign, casually inclusive version of “The Secret.” It might even seem like a con if DuVernay weren’t so sincerely determined to find the universe inside ourselves, her film only selling these kids (and your kids) on finding the right frequency and “some faith in who they are.”
That’s a lovely message for young viewers, couched in a hyper-literal film that ensures no child is left behind. In the opening scene, Meg’s parents use a paper chatterbox to explain that some things are never gone, only “enfolded.” The little girl repeats that word to herself like a mantra as she sifts through the universe in search of her father, preserving the light in herself by wresting dad away from an actual web of darkness. Inspirational songs — complete with lyrics, and sung by an immaculately curated roster of stars like Sade and Kehlani — are used like bumpers at a bowling alley to keep Meg on the right path.
Every feeling that Meg has, or should have, is manifest through the freeform logic of the world around her (e.g. she can’t physically balance herself on Galifianakis’ rock planet until she finds a way to balance herself on the inside). Emotions assume a cosmic force, becoming so real that they quickly render the characters who generated them abstract. Dr. Murry remains a handsome cipher, Mrs. Murry is always in the distance, and we don’t really get a sense of who Meg really is until DuVernay stings us with a sharply pointed moment towards the end, her young heroine confronting the “ideal” version of herself in a fantastic scene that melds specific concerns of bi-racial identity with some universal anxieties that all kids will appreciate.
In a movie that often plays less like a blockbuster adaptation of an adventure story than it does a colorfully illustrated new age textbook, moments like this affirm DuVernay’s vision, and point to the open-hearted sense of purpose that elevates “A Wrinkle in Time” far, far above the nightmarish “Alice in Wonderland” movie that inspired Disney to make it. In fact, one of the only things those two films share in common is that it’s sometimes hard to know who they’re for — a question that’s only worth asking because you think the answer would be so obvious. “A Wrinkle in Time” skews too young for adults, too scary for young kids (honestly, Michael Peña’s cameo as the Man with Red Eyes might be too scary for adults), and too narrow for pre-teens who don’t want to be told what to think.
Then again, perhaps this movie is so striking because it’s such a wonky and self-possessed experience, too much of its own thing to feel like it was tailor-made for anyone but the people who need it most. Working inside of the massive Disney machine to create a singularly personal spectacle that’s scale, confidence, and very existence do more than Meg’s story ever could to affirm what’s possible if you put your mind to it, DuVernay — characteristically blazing her own path — proves that a little imagination can go a long way. To quote Oprah: “Think like a queen. A queen is not afraid to fail. Failure is another steppingstone to greatness.”
“A Wrinkle in Time” opens in theaters on March 9th.