Disney’s live-action version of Madeleine L’Engle’s science-fiction fantasy classic, A Wrinkle in Time, is a cotton candy movie: brightly colored, a treat to look at, but ultimately not as satisfying as one might hope.
1. What’s it about?
Four years after Meg Murry’s (Storm Reid), father, brilliant scientist Dr. Alex Murry (Chris Pine) disappeared, she meets three mysterious cosmic beings, Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), who reveal that her father is still alive, but lost somewhere in space, having accidentally opened a tesseract (the “wrinkle” of the title) that transported him billions of miles to another planet. The three women transport Meg, along with her brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) and classmate Calvin (Levi Miller), in pursuit of Dr. Murry. When they discover that Murry is being held prisoner on the dark world Camazotz, the search becomes a rescue.
2. Will my kids like it?
There’s a lot to like. It’s bright, entertaining, magical, exciting, and hits a lot of notes children will recognize and respond to — loss, fear, wanting to fit in, trying to stand out, the importance of family, and the difficulty of self-acceptance — all in the context of a classic fairy-tale story dressed up as science fiction.
3. Will I like it?
That depends on how much you think about the story and its implications while watching a movie. While you’re watching it, the movie keeps you emotionally engaged, but afterwards the nagging “what just happened?” questions start popping up, and the movie just doesn’t hold up to that sort of scrutiny.
4. How is the cast?
The cast is perfect, especially the kids in the lead roles; Storm Reid expresses all of Meg’s emotional turmoil and keeps her engaging and likable, while Deric McCabe demonstrates incredible range as a young actor, portraying both the fearless and hyper-verbose little brother, and later a much darker and more sinister side while under the influence of the evil force in the story, “the It.” Levi Miller’s Calvin is not given a lot to do apart from admire Meg and tell her she’s great, but he makes a good sidekick on the adventure. The three magical women are all entertaining and puzzling in their own way, and all are the perfect choices for their roles. Reese Witherspoon’s impulsive and flighty Mrs. Whatsit is always entertaining, and Oprah Winfrey perfectly captures the imposing dignity and comforting warmth of Mrs. Which. Mindy Kaling does her best with the inscrutable Mrs. Who, who only speaks in literary quotations, but most of her lines are so oblique and abstract that they barely relate to what’s going on, which keeps her character removed from the audience too much. Chris Pine and Gugu Mbatha-Raw are both effective as Meg’s parents, and Pine remains one of the most underrated actors in the business. Michael Peña has a nice turn as Red (AKA The Man with Red Eyes).
5. How much did they change from the book?
I have not read any of L’Engle’s work, but she’s among my wife’s favorite authors, so I asked her. The biggest changes are that Meg has two other brothers in the books, a pair of 10-year-old twins who play a major role in later stories, but they’ve been cut out, possibly because of the necessity of aging Charles Wallace, who is five in the book but about eight here (McCabe was 10 when the film was shot). For some reason, they decided to have Charles Wallace be adopted. The character of Aunt Beast and her world are cut, as are a couple of other interludes after Dr. Murry is rescued. Calvin had a couple of scenes cut, including one that pretty much justifies his being there in the first place. The centaurs are also gone, and the Happy Medium is Zach Galifianakis instead of being a woman.
6. How are the effects?
The film is beautiful, with amazing vistas on alien worlds, and there are magical sequences involving friendly flowers and a dark storm attacking a forest, along with some creepy-surreal portrayals of suburbia as iconic evil. All of it looks great, though when Reese Witherspoon transforms into a magical flying creature, it has more than a little bit of a video game CGI feel to it.
7. Is it worth paying for the 3D/IMAX?
The visuals are the biggest thing the movie has going for it apart from the basic appeal of the actors, so maybe so.
8. What’s the best time for a bathroom break?
The movie alternates between fantastic visuals and plot development, so you’re likely to miss one or the the other, but probably the best point is about an hour in, when Meg and Calvin escape from the tornado in the forest. The next few minutes are setup for the next big scene, with just some dialogue between the two kids. Try to be back before they get to suburbia.
9. Is there anything after the credits?
No, and there’s not really a lot going on during the “star” credits, just the usual quasi-animated portraits of the characters as each name appears.
10. You say it’s unsatisfying; why?
First, Meg reminds me a bit of Alice in Wonderland; she’s a passenger in her own story. Things happen to her, she responds to situations, but she’s almost never proactive. The story happens to her much more than she makes it happen.
A Wrinkle in Time is not science fiction, it’s fantasy, and it generally adheres to the tropes of fantasy: A humble and unassuming young person learns that there is a secret world hidden from most people; that in this world they are important; that there is a battle between good and evil and they have a pivotal role to play; that the only way to win is to work as a team with a group of trusted allies; that the things they see as personal liabilities will be strengths in the battle; and that there is always an older and wiser mentor that should be listened to. The movie hits all of these points.
All of that is fine, but (and here’s where we get a little spoilery, so fair warning) the big problems are that the evil force is vague and undefined. What does it want? In a way, the It is somewhat like Ego in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, but where that evil force had Kurt Russell’s charming presence to make its evil even more sinister, and a stated agenda to remake the universe in its own image, the It is all black oily-smoky tendrils of darkness reaching out for… um, something? We never get any real idea of what It wants, other than to be evil and corrupt everything with its darkness for… reasons? Meg ultimately pries her brother free of It’s control by… um, believing in herself? Somehow, cosmic evil is defeated by reciting Stuart Smalley’s mantra, “you’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and doggone it, people like you.” They even literally hand-wave away a subplot, resolving an ongoing conflict with a gesture.
I usually complain about movies being too long lately, too often clocking in at 2-1/2 to almost 3 hours (I’m looking at you, Dark Knight Rises), but this one, running an hour and 49 minutes, could have used another 20 minutes, all of it devoted to story, particularly the resolution. Parts of the film feel choppy, as if important things were left out (or left for us to figure out), as when characters who were seemingly forgotten show up without explanation.
Ultimately, A Wrinkle in Time may be a lot more important for what it means than for what it says. Coming as part of a steadily-building wave of positive entertainment aggressively demonstrating diversity, from Hamilton to Moana to Black Panther, A Wrinkle in Time is very clearly a reflection of a change in the zeitgeist, and in some ways a rebuke to the fear and divisiveness that dominates the political world. In that regard, it’s an important film and cultural touchstone. It starts with a great setup and a lot of promise. I just wish it had a more compelling finish.