A WRINKLE IN TIME
Not the complete misfire it's been reported as, it's not exactly the best possible version of itself, either.
Directed by Ava DuVernay
Written by Jeff Stockwell and Jennifer Lee (based on the novel by Madeleine L'Engle)
With Storm Reid (Meg Murry), Deric McCabe (Charles Wallace Murry), Levi Miller (Calvin O'Keefe), Chris Pine (Dr. Alex Murry), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Kate Murry), Oprah Winfrey (Mrs. Which), Mindy Kaling (Mrs. Who), Reese Witherspoon (Mrs. Whatsit), Zach Galifianakis (the Happy Medium), Michael Pena (Red), and David Oyelowo (the IT)
Spoiler alert: moderate
Ava DuVernay's adaptation of Madeleine L'Engle's apparently-seminal A Wrinkle In Time continues what has now become, over the past decade-plus, something of a time-honored Disney tradition—namely Disney's brave and well-intentioned effort to, every other year, make a director-driven blockbuster without any franchise behind it to back it up. It's an effort, brave and well-intentioned or not, that's blown up in their investors' faces just sbout every time, and you no doubt recall what happened to Andrew Stanton's John Carter, Gore Verbinski's The Lone Ranger, and Brad Bird's Tomorrowland, each one of them suffering in the marketplace to varyingly mind-boggling degrees. Taken altogether, they lost Disney upwards of a quarter billion dollars. (Though it's not at all been a total artistic waste: John Carter is still Disney's best Star Wars flick.)
Institutional memories being what they are, each of those films was always a transparent effort on Disney's part to recapitulate the success of Verbinski's first Pirates of the Caribbean, which, of course, generated a franchise in front of it, though it seems now that that line of pictures has run its course. Hence A Wrinkle in Time: an adaptation of a fairly-beloved YA literary property that has a built-in fanbase and a built-in franchise of five whole books, done with more fiscal discipline than its predecessors. (With such monstrous spendthrift indulgences looming over it, one can point to at least a facially non-racist/non-sexist reason for why Wrinkle's budget was less than half its forebears' average—there are others, too, including the fact that DuVernay isn't as accomplished a director as Stanton, Verbinski, or Bird—but this is the part where I acknowledge that it's a very nice thing that Wrinkle represents the first time in history that a black woman has been permitted to direct a film with an eight-figure budget, even if I'm also obliged to point out that "eight figures" is an extremely wide range, and by today's standards, the $100 million Wrinkle is mid-budget. There's more difference in the budgets between Wrinkle and John Carter than there is between Wrinkle and Literally Blank Screen, and, frankly, this discrepancy shows in the product.) Anyway, nine days out, we know that Wrinkle has lived up to its dubious tradition, disappointing everyone both critically and commercially, and I don't imagine those other four books will be getting feature films, after all.
Happily, it's not nearly as bad as you'd think, although it's not very good, or perhaps "good" period. Then again, as I'm the kind of person who has to remember not to describe Flight of the freaking Navigator as a classic, when I fete Wrinkle as "acceptable" it might well come off as praise even more backhanded than it already sounds. But it's still slightly better than Tomorrowland, by dint of being shorter, having more interesting visual notions, and having a message that isn't quite as smug or obnoxious, although it remains a message delivered with quite nearly the same ham-fisted obviousness.
In its basic plottiness, Wrinkle seems more-or-less faithful: on a dark and stormy night, we meet Meg Murry, remembering her father, Dr. Alex Murry, who seemingly vanished off the face of the Earth four years before. We know, and Meg will eventually find out, that that's literally what he did, for Dr. Murry cracked the code of the tesseract, a mystical geometric concept that's permitted him to whisk himself across millions of light years in an eyeblink, through the five-dimensional expedient of a wrinkle in (space)time. Anyway, until she discovers the truth, Meg is stuck with her mother Dr. Kate Murry, her ferociously-precocious little brother Charles Wallace, and a spiraling sense of abandonment and self-hatred that has caused the bright, sweet girl to become an indifferent student and social outcast. This changes when Charles Wallace (addressed always as "Charles Wallace") makes the acquaintance of a mighty cosmic god going by the handle of Mrs. Whatsit, who, in addition to appropriating the cultural adornments of a very well-heeled drag queen, has been tasked with rounding up the Murry children (and Meg Murry's hanger-on could-be-boyfriend, Calvin) in order to help her and her astral associates Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which trace the steps of their father and rescue him from the embodiment of all bad mojo in the universe, the IT. In the process, if Meg wants to master the same power of the tesseract her father discovered, she'll have to learn to love herself, as a unique and necessary product of a universe that began fourteen billion years ago.
Okay, fine, that sounds about right. But in its specific plottiness, Wrinkle appears to abandon important character traits, seemingly-necessary world-building, L'Engle's liberal Protestant theology, and even fundamental explanations for why the story's entities do the things they do—and the last will come as a surprise to anyone who's actually sat through any substantial fraction of it, for Wrinkle is inordinately slow to rouse from one oppressively talky set-up. Wrinkle, rewritten by one of the most structure- and motivation-impaired screenwriters in the Disney stable, Frozen writer-director Jennifer Lee (from what I unkindly presume was a markedly superior draft by Jeff Stockwell), replaces the missing material with either plot holes and narrative fuzziness, or with enormous chunks of Message! that appear designed to clog the windpipe completely till the audience is asphyxiated, grown-ass adults and children alike. But it's kind of unfair to Lee to say that DuVernay had nothing to do with the latter; she quite clearly got what she wanted out of this scenario.
What we've got, then, is a movie that can be almost too-neatly divided into three parts: the first is driven by kid's adventure mystery (and even a little bit of kid's adventure shitheelhery), and it is very, very solid; the second is driven (mostly into the ground) by the most inert, mechanistic kind of storytelling possible, and it is terrible; and the third is actually a proper cosmic ride, but unfortunately one that's been smashed into the least amount of screentime possible, and which wants desperately for a second act that actually explained matters so that its stakes made even a tiny bit of sense.
The second part is where the damage really happens, therefore, and the argument that Wrinkle is a kid's movie, and hence must be judged by the standards of its own sincerity, doesn't hold up well at all—at times it's a lot more like a condescending grown-up's idea of what's good for children rather than something they'd actually enjoy, and this is the defining attitude of the solid half-hour or so of film that Wrinkle spends nursing Meg's insecurities through dialogue with Oprah Winfrey's borderline-unbearable Mrs. Which, rather than doing something crazy and unconventional, like resolving her personal problems through choices and action.
Wrinkle, already saddled with a somewhat severe structural problem for a kid's adventure film—it's a kid's adventure where the adults don't exit the picture for ages—just up and leans straight into its biggest weakness, letting the Mentor phase of the Campbellian monomyth swallow up unheard-of amounts of screentime, whilst also permitting the mentor to quote (almost directly, yet presumably by accident because I surely don't know who would do this on purpose) The Phantom Menace, notable as one of history's worst examples of Campbell-inspired storytelling. It's fortunate that Wrinkle also has Reese Witherspoon's Mrs. Whatsit to at least somewhat balance the scales; about the only joy to be had in Wrinkle's midsection is Witherspoon's snide remarks and open disdain for Meg's abilities. It marks her out as a bit of an asshole, but at least it's a conflict. Meanwhile, Wrinkle tries to keep things light with Mrs. Who, a being so cosmic she's lost the ability to use language, and can only quote famous people—this is the kind of thing that seems like it ought to be very cute and even kid's movie-erudite, but is not (though bless Mindy Kaling for trying)—and with Zack Galafianakis' "Happy Medium" (hm). All along, it wants to impress you with the kind of CG spectacle that's admirably earnest and even more admirably loopy, but which the production doesn't seem to have been able to afford much of, and which the kids appear to view as nothing more mindblowing than a theme park attraction (coming soon), centered around a flight sequence on the back of a sort of vegetable dragon that doesn't even try not to remind you that Avatar was nine years ago.
But that brings us to the kids themselves, and they're Wrinkle's saving grace, because (their ability to modulate their awe nothwtihstanding) its kids are likeable and worth spending time with, even if Wrinkle is such a Goddamn square piece of work that Meg and Calvin, whose flirtation is part of a major arc, don't even kiss at the end. (The saving grace is not to be found in the adults, clearly: Gugu Mbatha-Raw's Dr. Kate Murry could be played by a cardboard standee; Dr. Alex Murry's Chris Pine has more opportunity, and seizes it as best he can, but Wrinkle is oddly resistant to digging into the precise nature of the heedless dirtbag it unequivocally identifies him as, leaving us with the lowest-impact Rick and Morty episode of all time.)
In fact, if I'm being honest, it's mainly Deric McCabe's doing that the trio winds up as fun as they are. His little comic autist was not made for everybody (it seems that the decision to like the film or hate it hinges chiefly upon whether McCabe's piping voice and inappropriate reactions to everything annoys you or not); still, I found him amusing. His late-game turn as a demon-possessed demigod is even tolerably great. Likewise, Levi Miller's Calvin has an officious, formal manner to him that plays well against the other two, and he also was enjoyed more-or-less uniformly, despite being almost nothing but a delivery device for a parable, apparently about young black girls learning to accept compliments from white boys about their hair, which... fair enough?
I know I never got nothing but static.
Storm Reid, as Meg, has the worst of it, but of course she does: she's the one who has to serve as the focus of Wrinkle's exasperating, Oprahcentric thematic modules, and has by far the iffiest material to deal with otherwise, too. (Probably for no better reason than both are flamboyant kid's adventures with female protagonists, I wound up thinking of Labyrinth a lot during Wrinkle; and Labyrinth is no masterpiece, but you appreciate it when Sarah, who's not even supposed to be a genius of any particular sort, has her intelligence revealed by solving a hard logic problem in seconds. Wrinkle, on the other hand, blandly tells us that Meg is smart by having Reid scream factoids about fluid dynamics into a wind machine. Sure, too deep into this 100 minute movie to do any good, Meg does do something "smart." Yet it does little more than look cool, and amounts, mostly, to using a tool given to her by someone else, in precisely the way that tool was explained to work; I'm not really crediting that to her.)
But I was talking about Reid's performance generally, which obviously can't overcome everything thrown at her, but does work some minor miracles anyway, even almost justifying some of the worst missteps her director makes, notably DuVernay's positively stupefying decision to make an adventure film out of something like 25% punishing close-ups, apparently confusing the Disney children's movie she was contracted for with a brightly-colored, CinemaScope remake of The Passion of Joan of Arc. It's the kind of insane gambit that marks it as an auteur vehicle whether you want it to be one or not, and which ought to lose its impact through sheer overuse. But, every now and then, it captures perfectly the very real emotions that Reid's bringing to bear in one of the most haphazardly-assembled emotion machines in living memory; and, whatever faults she exhibits on the way, Reid's so good at missing her dad and feeling sorry for herself that you kind of worry about her.
These are the best moments in a film that is too often content to be stilted and sedate; what works in Wrinkle in Time works for me well enough that I can't actively dislike it as a whole. But there's so much in it to dislike that if you walked out feeling cheated, I don't know who could blame you.