Many have grown up reading the legendary Madeleine L’Engle novel “A Wrinkle in Time”. Of course this means the classic novel would get the film treatment eventually and in fact it did before, with pretty bland results. Following up their first attempt at movie magic, Disney has taken the science fiction tale and given it the theatrical treatment for the first time trying to recover from their recent underwhelming science fiction features or outright genre failures like “Tomorrowland”, “John Carter” and “Tron Legacy”. So does this science fiction fantasy make up for these failures, or only add to the evidence that Disney might have found a family-friendly genre it just can’t grasp in modern cinema? Let’s take a closer look. This is my review of “A Wrinkle in Time”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“A Wrinkle in Time” follows Madeleine L’Engle’s novel pretty closely with creative license utilized to shorten the tale in a 109-minute feature. The story follows Meg Murray (Storm Reid) an antisocial intellectual young girl whose father, Dr. Alex Murray (Chris Pine), disappeared four years earlier after trying to explore tessering, also called wrinkling, as a way to travel through space. Meg meets a trio of astral travelers, the overly honest and youthful Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), the wise and inspirational Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey) and Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) who speaks mostly through quotations of literary works. The beings explain they have arrived to recruit warriors to help rescue Meg’s father. Joined by her even more intellectually gifted adopted brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) and Meg’s crush and popular school boy Calvin (Levi Miller), Meg embarks on a journey that tests her bravery and her self-worth as she has to embrace the best and worst of herself in order to best a dark being who has set its sights on the universe and threatens to shroud it in darkness.
I’ve got a lot to cover here so bear with me please. I have to say the performances in “A Wrinkle in Time” were a bit frustrating for me and ironically, I think this is because the film tries maybe too hard to stick to the tone and presentation of its source material. Most of the cast delivers their lines with little convictions or emotional weight, although we do get tender moments that add some actual feeling to the bland script. Storm Reid, who has had small roles in a few films in the past including “12 Years a Slave” and “Sleight”, gets a chance to dominate the screen in this flick and it’s not the best performance in the world. Yes, there is complexity to Meg as she endures an internal struggle to try and escape the shell she is hiding in but this character never truly popped for me the way a lead role needs to. Reid does her best with the part, but maybe her lack of experience played into her inability to add anything new or interesting to such a legendary literary figure. The script doesn’t help, and Reid just doesn’t seem to have the experience or drive to make her otherwise bland dialogue stand out. I think Reid has a promising career ahead of her, but in my opinion this film shows she still has a long way to go to reach her full potential.
The other two young members of the cast are Deric McCabe and Levi Miller who play Meg’s brother Charles Wallace and love interest Calvin respectively. This is a tale of two actors as McCabe tremendously overacts his role as Charles Wallace while Miller gets so little screen time and valuable dialogue it makes you wonder why he was in the story at all. McCabe, who honestly is pretty talented for a young actor, is just too over the top with his portrayal of a certified young genius whose brain overpowers his common sense. It’s so over the top sometimes it’s actually annoying, and not in the way his character is SUPPOSED to be. Like Reid I think McCabe lost out due to the script, but even with a better script I feel like this performance would have been too much. Then you look at Levi Miller’s character Calvin and you have the exact opposite. The story doesn’t really do anything with Calvin except make him someone who can compliment Meg and help her feel better about herself over time. Granted the book didn’t do a whole lot with Calvin either, but the film does even less and waters down his significance to the story to the point where I can’t really critique Miller’s acting as much simply because, well, there’s not enough screen time or actual Calvin-centric moments for me to form a true opinion. He’s just there, and maybe it’s on Miller to some extent that Calvin never really feels required for this story but better writing and direction could have at least made Calvin something more than a token character in the grand scheme of things.
Then there’s the three lovely stars that play the legendary astral trio. Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling portray Mrs. Which, Mrs. Whatsit and Mrs. Who respectively and while they are talented actresses who add something to the screen just by being there only one shines while another is bland and the third feels insignificant. Let’s start with Mindy Kaling, who, like Levi Miller, feels pretty superfluous to the story other than her character’s job of presenting an important item near the third act. Kaling’s character has some interesting aspects about her, speaking mostly in quotes as she has evolved beyond the simplicity or normal language, but this concept is dumped halfway through the film due to her weakening state and Kaling provides a forgettable performance mostly drowned out by the significance of the other two astral entities. She is the third wheel and she feels like it and while Kaling proves she can handle a more serious role there’s not much here to do her talent justice. Then you have Oprah, who takes her rightful place as the inspiring character in the story as Mrs. Which, the leader of the atral trio, but again due to a poor script Oprah’s normally demanding tone and uplifting personality is downplayed as she comes off as dry and uninteresting. It was hard to even imagine that this was Oprah because she never felt uplifting, she felt stale and boring with little energy or power despite being clearly the most powerful and influential of the three beings.
The highlight performance for me was Reese Witherspoon who seemed to legitimately have fun as Mrs. Whatsit, a cheeky young astral being who does most of the interacting with the child actors. Witherspoon was genuinely fun to watch, making the most out of poor writing by giving her character fun quirks and a bubbly personality that jumped off the screen. Sure, it’s possible that the other two actresses were limited by the literary presentation of their characters, but it’s their job to add something new to the roles and bring them to life. Their inability to match Witherspoon’s energy and charm for me was the biggest complaint I had of the acting in this film and honestly no one seems to match her commitment other than maybe a briefly featured Zach Galifianakis. I wanted to see more of Whatsit as she added to every scene she was in, bringing out the best in the character’s she interacted with even more than her fellow astral figures. Witherspoon’s performance to me represents how much better this film could have been if the actors were willing or allowed to take things to a new level and escape the limitations of the admittedly dry and quirky source material’s dialogue and presentation.
One thing I can say about “A Wrinkle in Time” is it certainly LOOKS good. This movie packs some awesome imagery filled with vibrant colors or depressing shades of black and grey depending on the needs of the scene. While the actors and script failed to capture the mysticism and magic of the source material, the scenery was another story bringing to life modernized versions of the planets and characters that were visually pleasing and imaginative. Everything from the visual effects to the costume designs jump off the screen giving a touch of Disney to the classic story that made it feel as magical and whimsical as it should have, at least visually. There’s enough here to wow children and adults, it’s just too bad the rest of the film didn’t receive as much tender love and care as the overall design because as good as it looks, the execution is still off.
While I felt that “A Wrinkle in Time” failed to due true justice to the book it was based on I can safely say that considering its target audience it does offer some things to open the eyes of the new generation. I have my issues with its narrative, as I’ll explain below, but the film does touch on some pretty deep concepts of evil in this world, outing jealousy, parental mistreatment, and body image envy as causes of the darkness the three children have to fight. As the story progresses we see the main character, Meg, have to come into her own and relieve herself of the pain she has held onto while embracing her faults to get the job done. It’s a nice message that kind of shined in the book, but it much more relevant in the context of the film and was clearly accentuated to offer something for the younger audiences to hold on to. I do believe the movie could have done a better job driving home these themes, which again I’ll touch on farther down, but what it does offer gives some substance to an otherwise bland take on the story that I can certainly respect.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
To piggyback off my statements above I’ll first say that “A Wrinkle in Time” might touch on some powerful themes, but it never goes all the way and seems unwilling to trust its audience at times, but also takes things to a new level at other times. This is a criticism that others have brought about against this film and I have to agree with it 100 percent. The book was filled with subtleties and forced readers to wonder and fill in blanks, but this movie tries to fill in the blanks itself sometimes while at other points fails to provide much context at all. Basically, the story never picks a lane so to speak. There are moments where we get glimpses of powerful concepts that teach viewers to be themselves, embrace their faults and change the world but then at other times the movie seems to beat around to bush in an attempt to avoid other powerful messages with similar weight. The approach was all very confusing and may have been the product of watering down the story to suit the target audience, but you can’t go light on one thing and then have the courage to address something else. I had a hard time narrowing down exactly what “A Wrinkle in Time” was trying to say and be at some points and as a result it all felt like a jumbled mess with no cohesion for flow. It felt like the filmmakers just didn’t have faith that the young target demographic would latch on to the deeper elements of the legendary story and as a result we get a movie that lacks the same significance or power of its source material despite trying as hard as it can to emulate it. As a result it becomes something of a cheap knockoff with too many plot holes.
At the risk of redundancy, I have to also criticize the script and screenplay once again. I touched on this a bit in previous sections, but it bears mentioning that this is not a well written film and its one that suffers from its loyalty to the book, which is interesting seeing as it’s written by the writer and co-director of “Frozen” Jennifer Lee. The dialogue is all over the place and tries too hard to emulate the novel. It never feels smooth or polished in any way. This could be attributed to the acting, but even if an actor gives it their all a bad script can be difficult to overcome. I did praise Reese Witherspoon’s performance but even she falters at times due purely to script issues. Again, there’s a lack of flow and cohesion throughout the movie that makes every exchange feel forced and choppy and rarely is the dialogue believable without the suspension of disbelief. This film tries to replicate the novel’s already unique character interactions without adding anything fresh to these exchanges at all. Not once did I feel truly invested in what was taking place on the screen because the screenplay and script never drew me in. I was fully aware this was an acted film and it never felt like anything more. It just felt like I was watching a glorified audio book. There was clearly more attention to visuals and respecting the source material than giving us a memorable and enjoyable product that could stand on its own.
“A Wrinkle in Time” is a bit of a mess. It’s poorly written and only contains a few notably well-done performances that prevent it from reaching the heights of its source material in any way. It never picks a direction or fully embraces the powerful themes it chooses to focus on and oddly enough seems to be undecided on how much it trusts the maturity of its viewers by picking and choosing exactly what kind of issues to tackle without actually resolving any of them. Maybe in the 90s a story this messy could have passed for good, but we’re well beyond that now and with a source material as respected as “A Wrinkle in Time” there’s no excuse for mediocrity. You have to own it or it falls flat. I give the film credit for being visually stunning and at least offering SOME things that young viewers can hold on to in terms of morals and messages. Despite it’s flawed overall presentation, “A Wrinkle in Time” is fun to look at and does have its own charm about it, but not enough to help it become as great as it deserved to be. There are just too many heavy hitters involved and way too many plot halls for me to let this movie off the hook. It’s not unwatchable, and its not really horrible per say, but it has more faults than I’m willing to accept especially considering the legacy of the book it was based on and how far technology and film writing has come. It’s choppy, it’s poorly paced, and it just wasn’t at all what I hoped it would be. It deserved to be a lot better. Sadly this is just another example of Disney being unable to juggle its family friendly image with the powerful and thought provoking themes required to make a decent science fiction film.