While its success has mostly been seen in the US, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time series has been a mainstay in young adult literature for close to 60 years. All of that success comes despite the novels’ lack of a strong narrative and overtly Christian references mixed with discussions of quantum physics. The novel’s story has always been a unique one, and a weak 2003 TV movie adaptation by ABC seemed to confirm the fears that the series was un-filmable. However, Disney’s franchise frenzy could not be denied and a new adaptation was ordered soon after the success of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland.
For this incarnation, acclaimed director Ava DuVernay was given the helm with great public fanfare and the hope that the skill she displayed with Selma would guide this difficult film to success and blockbuster returns. Much was made about the fact that this would be the largest budget ever given to a black female director, and film journalists praised the diverse casting. All of these good intentions and major steps forward make the complete failure of A Wrinkle in Time even more disappointing.
The story of A Wrinkle In Time follows brother and sister Meg and Charles Wallace, whose scientist father (Chris Pine) disappears while researching a way to travel the universe. A few years later, Charles Wallace befriends three women named Ms. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), Ms. Who (Mindy Kaling), and Ms. Which (Oprah Winfrey), all of whom are “astral travelers” who transport the children and Meg’s friend Calvin across the galaxy in search of their father. At each of the stops along the way, the three women and the kids stand around and provide exposition, explaining the ways of the universe and the expanding evil force based on the planet Camazotz.
By the time the crew finally warps to the Camazotz, the audience has already sat through over an hour of nothing but pretty visuals and dialogue filled with generic spiritual platitudes. It is clear that the screenplay by Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell is trying to overcome the limitations of the source material, which similarly features little in the way of actions by the characters, but the approach here creates a whole new problem. Making the messages of the film more universal is an understandable goal, but the removal of any Christian or religious quote or reference ends up making every speech by the three women sound like they are reading from inspirational posters. By trying to make the plot’s message mean something to everyone, they succeeded in giving it nothing unique to say.
The lack of a strong moral or point could have been forgivable if other aspects were up to par. As noted, there is little in the way of action scenes here, or even many attempts to create wonder to compensate for the dialogue-heavy narrative, which leaves the film feeling flat. On top of that, DuVernay’s direction of actors is shockingly inconsistent. While Storm Reid and Deric McCade are strong as the siblings, the other performances run the gamut from decent to bad. Levi Miller, playing Meg’s friend Calvin, struggles mightily to hide his Australian accent, while Pine, Witherspoon, Winfrey, and Kaling all turn in performances that are never given the chance to take flight. The acting from bit parts, especially the siblings’ teachers in early scenes, borders on laughable.
Making both the screenplay and acting problems worse is the wildly inconsistent pacing. Line deliveries and attempts at humour are undermined by awkward editing, while scenes drag as everyone stands around talking about the situation instead of doing anything about it. Things pick up when they decide to jump to another location in the universe, only for them to become dull within minutes of the characters arriving and starting another conversation.
All of this adds up to what feels like a tremendous waste of the viewer’s time, and the time and effort of everyone involved. Almost everyone involved in this film can and has delivered quality entertainment before, and A Wrinkle in Time wastes them. DuVernay, whose direction has shined in the past, is clearly struggling here, and casts doubt on her ability to transfer her previously-displayed skills to blockbuster films.
A Wrinkle in Time‘s failure is a shame given the historic nature of many of the choices made in casting and direction, but it truly offers no real reason to recommend it. There are no visuals here that will take your breath away, no narrative that will draw you in, and the takeaway lesson is more shallow than what kids can find in their animated television shows. It is an unfortunate failure for DuVernay that comes a watershed moment for diversity in Hollywood. Luckily, Black Panther’s continued success softens the blow, and seeing that film again would be a much better way to spend your time and money.