Disney’s latest live-action adaptation isn’t based on one of their animated classics or a theme park attraction. Instead, they’ve gone the more traditional route and chosen to bring Madeleine L’Engle’s science-fiction/fantasy children’s book, A Wrinkle in Time to the big screen.
To do so, Disney brought in acclaimed director Ava DuVernay (Selma), screenwriter Jennifer Lee (Frozen), and a star-studded cast of talented actors like Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and Chris Pine. To lead the film, Disney went with the bold choice of Storm Reid – a promising young black actress whose starring role here is sadly still an anomaly among most Hollywood, big budget films. The trailers then showed off a surreal and spectacular looking film with lavish special effects that certainly put that $103 million budget to good use.
However, A Wrinkle in Time is not nearly as good as its many parts would suggest, and the film as whole winds up being a saccharine, overly simplistic mess. And it’s frustrating, really, because there are elements in the film which deserve praise – the performances, especially – but never are they enough to save A Wrinkle in Time from being a boring and largely forgettable film.
After her father, Dr. Alex Murry’s mysterious disappearance, Meg regresses from a bright student to a sullen loner. Her only real friend is her younger, adopted brother, Charles Wallace – a strange but exceptionally smart and charming little boy. Charles Wallace introduces Meg to the beautiful and bizarre Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Who. These three Mrs. explain to Meg that her father is being held captive by an evil force on a distant planet, prompting Meg, Charles Wallace, and Meg’s classmate, Calvin, to leave with the Mrs. on a trippy and space-faring adventure to rescue him.
Let’s begin with the good, which for the most part are the performances of Reid, Mbatha-Raw, and Pine. The three make for a loving family bound together by big dreams of exploring the mysteries of the cosmos. Once that family is ripped apart, though, their love is underscored by heartbreak – especially from Reid, who does give a wonderful performance as young girl struggling to accept herself and grapple with why her father left. The scenes between Reid and Pine definitely carry the most emotional weight, and the eventual reunions between them as well as Mbatha-Raw are some of the best scenes in the film.
As the three Mrs., Winfrey, Witherspoon, and Kaling give fine performances, but besides Witherspoon – whose Mrs. Whatsit is a kooky bundle of energy and has easily the most defined personality – both Winfrey and Kaling are more one-note; with Winfrey as the wise mentor and Kaling reduced to speaking dialogue of lines from poems or songs. That’s a holdover from the book, surely, but it’s less effective on film – especially when the film just drops the device when it feels like it.
While Reid proves more than able at carrying such a big budget spectacle, her young co-stars are less convincing. To be fair, the role of Charles Wallace would be a tough one for even the most seasoned actor, and while Deric McCabe is well enough as the precocious and fearless little guy, he’s there to move the plot along and little else. In contrast, the purpose of Levi Miller’s Calvin is baffling, to the point that it’s fair to ask why he’s even here? The film positions him as a love interest, but with such little time given to developing Calvin and any relationship he may have with Meg, it just falls flat.
What hurts A Wrinkle in Time the most is the story – the plotting, the pacing, and a clear lack of detail necessary for the world-building this film requires. There is light, the force of good in the universe, and there is dark, the evil in the universe which the film labels as “IT”. This is all well and good if we’re talking the light and dark side of the Force, but here it makes for poor character motivation. Additionally, the real threat IT poses is never fully explained, so the film lacks any stakes beyond Meg wanting to rescue her father – something she accomplishes with hardly any push back from IT, which makes even less sense. As a protagonist, Meg is more or less taken from place to place, plot beat to plot beat, making her a passenger in her own story. Finally making her own choice of where she wants to go is the thrust of the film’s climax, so there’s that, but holding it for so late in the film makes her journey there too passive.
There are important themes at work in A Wrinkle in Time, and in that respect, the film can at least be viewed by children for the messages it has to impart. And being that the story is so simplistic, the messages of recognizing your own faults, loving yourself, and learning to be deserving of love are not told with any subtlety. Again, this is great for young children but for anyone over the age of 7, be prepared to eye roll through a few of the film’s climactic beats.
It’s evident that Disney was hoping to score something of an Alice in Wonderland-like vibe from the adventure of tessering – the act of traveling from one point in space to another through a wormhole or wrinkle. Yet, while the locales visited are vivid and weird and at times utterly surreal, there’s less rhyme or reason for why the film visits the places it does. For example, the planet on which IT resides is apparently meant to resemble a hive mind, but besides one scene with kids bouncing balls in unison, that idea isn’t really enforced by anything on screen.
A Wrinkle in Time is a big beautiful mess, brimming with ambition and heart. Sadly, that isn’t quite enough to translate into an engaging film experience. In the last 50 years or so, children’s media has evolved and kids are more savvy than their parents were at the same age. Call it a loss of innocence if you want, but it’s fair to ask more out of children’s entertainment. A Wrinkle in Time doesn’t offer any of the nuance or complexity as say Zootopia or Inside Out, falling back on the simple story of good triumphing over evil without ever fully explaining just why that fight is so important.