LOS ANGELES — Three years before Madeleine L’Engle died, ABC butchered and then broadcast an adaptation of her best-known book, “A Wrinkle in Time,” giving the author a chance to finally see her visionary 1962 story — overflowing with characters, creatures, and ideas that defy visual representation (just try to draw a tesseract, if you can) — translated to the screen. Asked what she thought of the made-for-TV version by Newsweek magazine, L’Engle coolly told her interviewer, “I expected it to be bad, and it is.”
Expectations can be a funny thing when it comes to movies: The more eagerly we anticipate a project, the more likely it is to disappoint. When Disney resolved to remake “Wrinkle,” this time with a much bigger budget, a better director (Ava DuVernay, fresh off “Selma”), and the benefit of a quantum leap forward in visual effects technology, fans of the novel had every reason to hope the studio might get it right — plus, there was the added excitement of seeing a woman of color take the helm of such a big tentpole. Let this be a warning: Keep your expectations in check, and you might be pleasantly surprised.
Despite such bold choices as casting Oprah Winfrey as an all-wise celestial being and rejecting the antiquated assumption that the lead characters ought to be white, “A Wrinkle in Time” is wildly uneven, weirdly suspenseless, and tonally all over the place, relying on wall-to-wall music to supply the missing emotional connection and trowel over huge plot holes.
Juggling so many extreme look changes it comes off feeling like a tacky interstellar fashion show at times, the film hops from one planet to the next too quickly for us to grow sufficiently attached to adolescent heroine Meg Murry (Storm Reid) or invested in her quest to find her missing father (Chris Pine), a scientist who disappeared four years earlier just as he thought he’d found a breakthrough means of traveling great distances through space via something called a tesseract. That term, like so much of the vocabulary in L’Engle’s book, asks children to reach beyond their reading level in order to follow a story that projects Meg from the comfort of her suburban backyard to worlds where entities feel and communicate in radically different ways — a mind-expanding invitation for empathy, if ever there was one.
On this level, DuVernay and screenwriter Jennifer Lee (“Frozen”) do right by the source material. Though they simplify many concepts to work within the new medium, they haven’t necessarily dumbed down the whole. Meg remains a somewhat nerdy character, effectively defined by her insecurities (she’s tormented by a popular girl in her class, whom the film shrewdly reveals to have self-image issues of her own). In order to fulfill her quest, she must learn to recognize and embrace her faults.
If Meg is smart, her adopted younger brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) may well be a genius — or at the very least, a prodigy whose gifts will soon be coveted by an evil force called “the Black Thing,” or simply “It.” (For the record, L’Engle got to that particular pronoun two dozen years before Stephen King.)
When an odd, redheaded woman named Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) shows up at the Murry home late one night, Charles Wallace is the least alarmed. He’s also the one who encourages Meg and her supportive friend Calvin (Levi Miller) to barge into a creepy house, where they find Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) napping among the artfully stacked piles of books (the character is like a walking Barlett’s Familiar Quotations, communicating exclusively in other people’s words).
Last to arrive is Mrs. Which (Winfrey, an inspired casting choice), the eldest and most powerful of these incredibly special, diva-liciously over-dressed women. Though Charles Wallace is too young to remember their missing dad, he’s the first to “tesser” — exploiting a fold in the fabric of time to jump to great distances — after Mrs. Which explains the concept.
Finding their father may be the kids’ driving goal in the film, but it’s the inter-dimensional tourism that makes their mission worthwhile. The first planet they come to is inhabited by sentient plant life which have mastered the secrets of levitation and which “speak color” (a fun idea somewhat unsatisfyingly explained here). With emerald-green fields and crystal water as far as the eye can see, this world is home to Mrs. Whatsit, who makes a transformation we haven’t seen before, whisking them away on a unique kind of magic carpet ride.
From there, it’s off to a distressingly ugly place where the characters are teeter on giant gemstones while a goofy hermit (Zach Galifianakis) cracks jokes. The visual effects are so poor during this stretch that it leaves the actors looking ridiculous as they pinwheel their arms in an exaggerated pantomime of trying not to lose their balance. The most relatable performer in an ensemble of wildly different acting styles, Reid struggles to convey Meg’s lack of confidence in herself, when it’s clear these doubts exist only to delay a sudden climactic swell of self-acceptance — which will happen at their next stop, on Camazotz, a land where It is so powerful that the Mrs. Ws must leave them.
Like so many of the artistic decisions in “A Wrinkle in Time” (from the iffy CG used to conjure these other worlds to each new iteration of Oprah’s ostentatious eyebrow fashions), DuVernay’s choice of who should play Charles Wallace seems questionable at first — if only because McCabe’s child-actorly way of playing to the camera makes the lip-smacking Welch’s Grape Juice girls look naturalistic by comparison. And yet, this being fantasy, who’s to say such precocity is out of place? Except, as readers will anticipate, something major happens to Charles Wallace that appears to be so far outside of McCabe’s range that the movie all but derails during what’s meant to be its climactic stretch.
Whereas the film had been so attentive to detail early on (a clever moment in which Charles Wallace waits outside the principal’s office, sitting beneath a framed photo of James Baldwin, suggests the sort of phantom threads DuVernay has sewn into the lining of her film), glaring inconsistencies now loom. At one point on Camazotz, Meg insists that she would never dream of abandoning her brother on this planet — only, she did exactly that just a few minutes earlier, losing track of Charles Wallace while trying to outrun the Black Thing (the boy magically reappears at the end of the scene, without bothering to explain how he got over the wall).
Part of the trouble with films like this, adapted from older books that have inspired so many other storytellers over the intervening decades, is how blase even relatively young audiences have become to all the tropes L’Engle innovated in her time (the female fantasy hero, an all-consuming dark force that threatens to destroy the universe, using love to defeat evil, etc.). Surely that explains why DuVernay and her team — which includes costume designer Paco Delgado and effects crews at ILM and MPC — felt compelled to push the visuals to such an extreme.
Unfortunately, that strategy deprives audiences of the very thing L’Engle’s classic YA novel so marvelously encouraged: the chance to use their imagination. That’s the risk of any science-fiction adaptation, of course, seeing as how cinema replaces the most evocative descriptions with concrete images. Except in this case, a bad sound mix and over-reliance on music drowns out a good deal of the film’s dialog. At the same time, the design aspects of the film are so consistently distracting that we risk losing sight of its best ideas — not just literary, but also a colorblind agenda that has the potential to change the landscape entirely.