Wrinkle in Time, AReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 03/09/18 03:13:52
I suppose that I should confess upfront before getting into the eagerly awaited film version of “A Wrinkle in Time” that I have never read the award-winning 1962 science-fantasy book by Madeline L’Engle on which it was based. This is not meant to be a slam on the book by any means—fantasy fiction has never been one of my favorite literary areas and when I was 10, which is probably the optimum age for reading it, and reading way beyond my years, I was too busy trying to puzzle out exactly what happened during the driveway scene in “The World According the Garp”—and I know plenty of people who have themselves read and cherished it over the years. Therefore, I cannot really answer the question of how the film is in comparison to the book in any way. However, I can tell you what the film is like judged strictly on its own terms and merits and in that regard, it is an unmitigated disaster of such epic proportions that it almost—almost—begins to exert a strange sort of fasciation as you ponder whether it is just a massive botch of an adaptation or if generations of readers have been wrong all along and the story was crap right from the get-go.The story is centered around Meg Murray (Storm Reid), a smart and resourceful middle school-age girl whose life has not been the same since the disappearance of her father (Chris Pine), a brilliant physicist with interesting theories regarding the space/time continuum, four years earlier. Once cheerful and outgoing, she now divides her time between school, where her grades are plunging as she sullenly endures the teasing of classmates and gossiping amongst her teachers regarding her father, and home, where she lives with her equally brilliant scientist mother (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and her super-duper brilliant adopted younger brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe). One night, as Meg and her mother argue over yet another altercation at school—one leading to a mean girl classmate (Rowan Blanchard) getting a basketball applied directly to the face—they are interrupted by the sound of Charles Wallace (and yes, he is referred to that way throughout) letting someone in the house. This turns out to be Mrs Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), who looks like an exceptionally chipper refugee from a Phish parking lot and who says a lot of stuff that doesn’t make much sense to Meg but which Charles Wallace embraces wholeheartedly while a reference to something called a tesseract causes Mom to react with shock.
Before long, Meg is greeted by two other similarly oddball women—Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), who speaks entirely in the famous quotations of others (don’t worry—she cites sources) and the giant-sized Mrs Which, who talks in the language of broad self-affirmation perfected by Oprah Winfrey and who, perhaps not coincidentally, is played by Winfrey herself. As she sort of explains, Meg’s father’s theories about quantum physics were correct and he was able to “tesser”—travel to the farthest reaches of the universe through wrinkles in the fabric of time and space. Alas, he got lost along the way and to make matters worse, the entire universe is now being threatened by an ultra-malevolent force known only as the IT (and yes, L’Engle got to that particular name before Stephen King) that is ready to engulf everything in a cloud of darkness and doubt. With the aid of the three guides or sages or whatever, Meg, along with Charles Wallace and cute classmate Calvin (Levi Miller), tesser themselves in search of Dad on a journey that includes stops at a picturesque world where flowers speak in colors and Mrs Whatsit at one point turns into a giant flying cabbage leaf, and a planet containing an all-knowing seer called, I fear, the Happy Medium (Zach Galifianaks) before ending up on the planet of Camazotz, where the IT is based and Dad is imprisoned and where Meg must alone confront her fears and come to terms with herself if she is to defeat the former and rescue the latter.
How all of this plays on the page, assuming it has not gone through too many major changes, I cannot begin to say. On the screen, however, it constantly veers between the head-scratchingly bizarre and the downright ghastly. With its combination of tossed-off quantum physics talk and vague aphorisms about believing and loving yourself as a way of getting in touch with the universe in order to avoid being swallowed by the darkness that turn up in between interplanetary jaunts, “A Wrinkle in Time” felt to me like a $100 million vanity vehicle designed to promote a New Age religion based on a theology that lands on the eschatological scale somewhere between Scientology and a salad bar menu and featuring characters who talk in a way that suggests what might have resulted if Leo Buscaglia had written “Ghostbusters.” Needless to say, this is an exceedingly strange conceit for a movie, especially one with a massive budget aimed largely at the family trade, and for a little while, I found myself holding out hope that it would prove to be one of those once-in-a-blue-moon oddities that defy all typical expectations for a family film and are all the better as a result—films along the lines of “The 5000 Finger of Dr. T,” “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” “Bugsy Malone,” “Popeye” and “Return to Oz” that could plausibly play as kiddie matinees and as midnight shows. Unfortunately, it never takes off at all and it eventually bogs down into a failed attempt at hard-sell whimsy that makes one yearn for the comparatively light and subtle touch of Steven Spielberg recent botch of a kid-lit classic, “The BFG.”
So how could a film that seems to have every possible advantage going for it stumble so badly? Part of the problem is that the whole story, for all of its weirdo touches, just comes across as too familiar for its own good, though this is presumably the inevitable result of being beaten to theaters by decades of films that have clearly used L’Engle’s work as a source of inspiration. A bigger problem, however, is that in Ava DuVernay, whose last film was “Selma,” it has landed in the hands of a a director utterly unsuited for this style of filmmaking. The relentless promotional machine continually describes her as a “visionary filmmaker” but her work here is any indication, she is a visionary without any real sense of vision in regards to this style of filmmaking. Charged with putting across the clunky screenplay by Jennifer Lee, she just rushes her way through the material without giving it any chance to breathe (the opening scenes will no doubt prove to be all but incomprehensible to anyone not familiar with the story) and tries to paper over the numerous plot holes and places where the more dramatic material fails to come to life with an overly insistent music and song score that tries to prod viewers into feeling the emotions that the writing has failed to convey. Visually, the film is a garish mess and instead of figuring out a way to put a quirky personal stamp to the big effects-heavy set pieces in the way that Patty Jenkins did with “Wonder Woman” and Ryan Coogler just demonstrated in “Black Panther,” these sequences are so bereft of any trace of individuality that they seem to have been untouched by human hands. What makes this especially disheartening is that if this movie does prove to be a success—stranger things have happened—the less-than-stellar visualizations will forever replace the visions conjured up in the minds of those who read the book and imagined it for themselves. It seems unfair that when future generations conjure up Mrs. Which, the first thing that will come to mind is the film’s take on her, which essentially resembles what might have resulted if Oprah Winfrey was charged with playing the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Sage.
Where DuVernay did succeed in “Selma” was in her ability to get strong performances from the majority of her sprawling case but she hasn’t quite been able to make that magic work again here. As Meg, Storm Reid is easily the best thing about the film but the aura of strength, intelligence, pluck and self-confidence that she naturally projects throughout ends up clashing uneasily with her character during the scenes when Meg is supposed to be feeling less sure about herself and her abilities. As her friend, Levi Miller is pleasant enough but is saddled with a character that is notable only for his complete superfluousness—unless I missed some key piece of information amidst all the gobbledygook, there is never any reason for him to even be involved with the proceedings. As Charles Wallace, Deric McCabe is the very opposite of forgettable in the worst possible way—with a manner that makes him come across like a hybrid of Young Sheldon and the robot from “Small Wonder,” he is kind of insufferable for most of the running time and when his character undergoes a major transformation, he then crosses the line into being completely unbearable. Among the better known players, Witherspoon’s slightly schtick grows tiresome pretty quickly—she is a wonderful actress but “flighty” and “ethereal” are two performance modes that do not suit her well. Meanwhile, Kaling is pretty much wasted in a nothing part and Winfrey is so busy exuding her inner Winfreyness that she does not even bother to play a character. As the Happy Medium, whose name proves to be the funniest thing about him, Zach Galifianakis is more peculiar than amusing but he isn’t in it long enough to completely derail the proceedings, no matter how much you might want him to by that point. As Meg parents, Pine and Mbatha-Raw are engaging enough but the former is necessarily kept off the screen for most of the running time while the latter is stuck with a character so barely developed that she makes Kaling’s seem fully fleshed out by comparison.With its combination of weirdness and earnestness, “A Wrinkle in Time” is certainly a change from the usual array of cynically conceived family-skewing films that have been stuffed with over-the-top slapstick and endless pop culture references. And yet, despite all of the emotional moments on display, DuVernay never manages to really earn any of them and they wind up getting overwhelmed by the constant barrage of special effects (which are surprisingly chintzy in a couple of instances) and ineffective star turns. Whether young fans of the book end up taking to the film or not, I cannot honestly say. They will probably enjoy seeing the adventures that they have cherished brought to semi-life but I doubt that it will equally capture and inspire their imaginations in the way that the Harry Potter movies managed to do even with people who had the books memorized. The only thing “A Wrinkle in Time”might do for younger viewers is to inspire them to want to grow up to become filmmakers themselves so that they could one day make better movies than this one.
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