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A WRINKLE IN TIME (2018) review

March 9, 2018

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written by: Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell
produced by: Jim Whitaker and Catherine Hand
directed by: Ava DuVernay
rated: PG (for thematic elements and some peril)
runtime: 109 min.
U.S. release date: March 9, 2018

 

I went into “A Wrinkle in Time” with an open mind, hopeful that I would be wowed by a big-budget fantasy from a passionate filmmaker. However, the IMAX screening I attended began with an “explainy” video introduction from director Ava DuVernay, who preceded to share how the $103 million Disney movie she spent two years making, an adaptation of the 1962 science fantasy novel of the same name from Madeleine L’Engle, is for young people and people who are young at heart, essentially asking viewers if we could tap into that inner child while watching her movie. The thing is, I was kind of already planning on that. I didn’t have to be asked. I didn’t need an introduction. With that sour taste in my mouth, I watched a movie that I wound up admiring and appreciating despite it being kind of a mess.

That’s not a good way to start any viewing experience, but considering we live in a world where filmmakers are scrambling to defend why their movie isn’t connecting with audiences or fails to make a killing at the box office (either that or the studio is asking them too), with actors and directors often crying out a variation of “we made it for the fans” – after all, no one makes movies for critics – so, I guess it’s not surprising then to have such an introduction. But, it’s disappointing nonetheless, since I thought DuVernay would be the kind of artist who would just let her movie explain itself (I’m just guessing, not that I know her personally or anything).

 

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I’m going to assume that anyone familiar with the source material may take issue with this movie. It’s next to impossible to please loyal fans of any source material, but a beloved decades-old novel that most people were introduced to as children is going to have a certain amount of protective nostalgia attached to it automatically. Since I’ve never read the book (I was busy reading Choose Your Own Adventures), I’m coming in cold, with only a vague understanding of the story and a recollection that L’Engle’s fantasy works incorporated certain elements of Christianity. None of that can be found here, aside from gleaning the fight of light versus darkness, but that’s something that’s kind of universal regardless of religion.

Without a doubt, screenwriters Jennifer Lee (“Frozen” and “Wreck-It Ralph”) and Jeff Stockwell (“Bridge to Terabithia” and “The Ottoman Lieutenant”) had their work cut out for them in adapting the beloved book. They injected some inevitable modern updates, but ultimately I mostly walked away reminding myself that some stories are best left to a reader’s imagination.

Their adaptation revolves around 13-year-old Meg Murry (Storm Reid), whose astrophysicist father, Dr. Alex Murry (Chris Pine) went missing four years ago after allegedly discovering the possibility of traveling vast distances by simply using your mind. Maybe he was right. Meg and her adopted younger brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) live with their mother, Kate (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a scientist who studied quantum entanglement with her husband and the possibility of “wrinkling” time, while dealing with the typical weight of middle school life in Los Angeles, like the stuck-up school bully (Rowan Blanchard, who leads a cliché group of Mean Girls) and the admirer from afar in Calvin O’ Keefe (Levi Miller), who gravitates toward Meg.

 

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One dark and rainy night, the Murry household is visited by plucky woman dressed like a Disney Princess on acid, who is fluttering around their home unannounced. Meg and her mother are dumbfounded, yet Charles Wallace (yes, he goes by and is referred to “Charles Wallace” throughout the entire movie and no one questions it or attempts to shorten it, even though the audience will have desired such more than once) seems to already have met her acquaintance and feels perfectly at ease around this curious stranger, who introduces herself as Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) and goes on about some “tesseract” and how Dr. Alex Murry is somewhere out there.

It turns out this eccentric and somewhat persnickety Whatsis is a celestial entity and in no time, she takes Meg, Charles Wallace and Meg’s new friend Calvin (who’s status has been updated to cute and nice, simply due to his superfluous inclusion and the camera’s preoccupation with him) on their own disappearing act and the trio are whisked away (referred to as “tessering”) across the universe, in search of Meg’s father. The first of many exotic and beautiful environments they visit is a lush landscape of fresh green grass, clear blue and purple mountains, inhabited by floating sentient flowers. It’s there they meet a towering Oprah Winfrey (at least the size of a two-flat), who is introduced as the mighty Mrs. Which, who will serve as an omnipotent guide for the young trio as they sat out to find Meg’s father.

Along this archetypal journey, Meg and company will encounter odd characters and strange locales, while having to face her own fears and pain. They are assisted by Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), another colleague of the Mrs. W’s, who communicates by spouting quotes and referencing their earthling authors (such as Shakespeare, Kahlil Gabran and Lin Manuel-Miranda) and are taken to meet a seer named The Happy Medium (Zach Galifianakis) to point them in the right direction. Still, there is a darkness the kids most contend with, which is at times a literal and figurative antagonist that will serve as a way for Meg to use her intellect and heart, as well as her traveling companions, to reunite with her father and, well ultimately find herself.

One can’t help but notice the ambition in DuVernay’s movie. The Disney money is definitely on the big-screen in a visual sense as we take in the colorful celestial wonderlands and strange intergalactic sights, yet the director and screenwriters here hold our hand gently and guide us through a gateway to something possibly unsettling and foreign for viewers of a certain age. This is definitely a movie for tweens – specifically girls – which is needed considering they are a demographic that gets woefully overlooked or pushed into viewing material featuring whiny and sarcastic teens. Meg, as portrayed by the wonderfully intuitive Storm Reid (“12 Years a Slave”), isn’t necessarily wide-eyed or a complainer (thankfully), the kinds of tweens usually placed before us to follow. Deep within, she’s smart, curious and both tender and open-hearted, but that’s been understandably overshadowed in recent years at the loss of her father. Audiences will be drawn by the dazzling look of the movie and the bold cosplay, but hopefully they’ll be grateful to be grounded by such a authentic girl protagonist.

 

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That’s not to say “A Wrinkle in Time” is great. The aforementioned mess that plagues this movie is unforgettable – with its jerky tonal shifts, bumper-sticker dialogue and, at times, straight-up confusing storyline – but, it is somewhat forgivable considering this is DuVernay’s first crack at something this big. Plus, it’s got sincerity, creativity and heart. So, I do respect it and want to see it again. That wouldn’t normally happen with a movie this messy, but I did promise my 11-year-old daughter I’d take her and her friends and they are the target audience for something like this. DuVernay knows this and has made a movie that fills the needed gap for a specific demographic.

The cast that DuVernay employs here almost make up for some stilted, eye-rolling lines they utter, but again, I did find myself stopping myself and considering how my 11-year-old self would likely be on board with all that transpires on screen. Amid all the green screen action and CGI designs, there are moments of human interaction that piqued my interest. One near-impeccable scene involving the reunion between Meg and her father, an emotionally wrenching scene between Storm and Pine, left me a little misty-eyed.

Sure, there’s no getting around that there are moments where Oprah looks like she’s auditioning for a role in a live-action Yu-Gi-Oh! movie and her celestial pals come across as cosplay guests I’ve seen walking the comic convention floor, but at least all involved feel committed. Also, I referred to Mrs. Which as “a towering Oprah Winfrey” because there’s just no getting around the fact that the character is Oprah Winfrey. Granted, the target audience probably won’t know who Winfrey is, but the adults who brought them to the theater will find themselves challenged with the task of seeing anyone other than Oprah Winfrey in elaborate runway gowns and glittery makeup. For some viewers, it’ll be hard to separate themselves from certain actors from the characters they play. Sometimes there’s just no getting around that. But hey, the movie tries hard, like when Witherspoon’s Whatsit turns into a floating leaf.

 

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The movie gets interesting (aka, weirder, in the best sense) the more time spent with the antagonist of the story. Granted, it’s not the antagonist who’s interesting, it’s what it does to our heroes. They encounter a blackness that poses a threat to the universe known as the IT, a nefarious mind-controlling being from a planet called Camazotz (had to look that up too, which is when I learned of other planets that are apparently name-dropped in the movie, like Uriel and Orion, somehow I missed that). A double-mustachioed Michael Pena, graced with a truly exquisite mustache, enjoys his bizarre role as a duplicitous acolyte of IT named Red, who turns the precocious Charles Wallace into a 80s style demon child. Just don’t ask me to explain what this IT is or why it does what it’s doing.

Most of the movie circumvents typical “Chosen One” expectations, presenting a very relatable character in Meg. She gets flustered and becomes afraid just as you or I would, but her persistence through her struggles and determination is inspiring. As far as Mrs. Which referring to her as “a warrior”, I don’t know about that or the reason for it. Still, it’s refreshing to see a young relative newcomer hold her own in such a busy, big movie.

Unfortunately, the movie she is in, as admirable as it is, never really finds its footing, so it’s harder to completely get on board with it. In many ways, I wish it was just a little weirder and more unique. I’m glad DuVernay does her own thing here and declined helming “Black Panther”, and like that runaway hit “A Wrinkle in Time” gives people of color (all kinds of color, every color) another opportunity to see themselves on the big-screen in a respectable manner.

Ultimately, “A Wrinkle in Time” reminded me that just because a best-selling, award-winning imaginative novel is cherished, doesn’t mean a trip to the big-screen will be equally embraced. The movie often plays like an Freeform pilot, setting up ideas to be paid off later in Season 2, while the flimsly characterizations seem better suited for weekly dramatic strengthening. I dont know the specifics of how or what Christianity L’Engle infused in her stories, but the only faith celebrated in DuVernay’s adaptation is in one self. Maybe that’s enough, considering who this female dominant story is for.

 

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RATING: **1/2

 

 

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