REVIEW: 'A Wrinkle in Time'? More like give me back my time.

Storm Reid as Meg in  A Wrinkle in Time , directed by Ava DuVernay.

Storm Reid as Meg in A Wrinkle in Time, directed by Ava DuVernay.

I wanted to like A Wrinkle in Time. I really did. Madeleine L’Engle’s 1962 novel left a pretty big impression when I read it more than 15 years ago. It was a difficult book to grasp, because unlike Harry Potter the images and characters weren’t always described in much detail, and the idea of “tessering” – the act of astral travel through a tesseract in the fifth dimension – took some getting used to. But it was easy to fall into L’Engle’s universe, even if I didn’t understand all of it, and I loved how dark and brooding and morbid it was at certain points in the battle of light vs. darkness.

So, then, I was disappointed as any that Ava DuVernay’s film adaptation was a shallow and Disney®-fied take on a novel that was full of allegory and nuance. It had turned into a middling story about a girl’s search for her missing father while juggling a feud with a high school Mean Girl™ and a burgeoning romance with a generic Prince Charming™.

Storm Reid stars as Meg Murry, a bright but troubled young student whose life has gone off the rails after her astrophysicist father, Dr. Alex Murry (Chris Pine), discovers the ability to tesser and disappears without a word. Meg, her little brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), and love interest Calvin (Levi Miller) are later introduced to astral travellers Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) and Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), who help the kids teleport to Camazotz, where Dr. Murry is being held captive by the red-eyed man (Michael Pena) a.k.a. the IT (pronounced “it” despite both letters being capitalized).

Mindy Kaling as Mrs. Who.

Mindy Kaling as Mrs. Who.

Visually, A Wrinkle in Time can be pretty exciting – just like how Disney managed to inject a kaleidoscope of colours and eye candy for Alice in Wonderland… but does it work here? I’m not sure it does; the colourful overtones don’t match L’Engle’s weirdly dark book. The film holds back from really exploring its themes of darkness vs. light and minority vs. majority, as if giving more screen time to its interesting themes and its underused villain detracts from its pursuit of displaying every colour of the universe or trying to capture the largest demographic possible (rated PG rather than PG-13).

You’re never really quite able to immerse yourself in the universe because it’s hard to pick out a distinguishing feature of this film. When the audience finds it difficult to suspend their disbelief, that’s a big problem, especially in the sci-fi fantasy genre.

Reid is fantastic as the film’s central character, but the same can’t be said of the others. In an interview with TIME, DuVernay said that she cast the three Mrs. not on acting ability or fit, but because Witherspoon, Kaling and Oprah were “icons” – sorry, but that’s a terrible idea. I’m very happy that Ryan Coogler and DuVernay are making all kinds of Hollywood history, but we are judging the quality of the film, not its cultural significance. DuVernay was so caught up about sending a (political? cultural? feminist?!) message that she didn’t think that casting “icons” would be a poor fit.

Oprah Winfrey as Mrs. Which.

Oprah Winfrey as Mrs. Which.

Oprah’s Mrs. Which is a Glinda with a bejeweled brow but without the same charm, even though in the book she mostly appears as a disembodied voice and transforms into a traditional witch with a broom in human form. Witherspoon’s quirkiness as Mrs. Whatsit is neither interesting nor funny, and in her lengthy career she’s always been a much better dramatic actress than comedienne. Kaling’s Mrs. Who is perhaps closest to her novel counterpart, but the character itself doesn’t offer much to the film.

DuVernay’s gamble ultimately backfired because A Wrinkle in Time was so poorly received critically and in the box office, so was it really worth it? A good film can punctuate its cultural relevance with an exclamation mark, just as Black Panther did, but a film that seeks to become culturally relevant first and a positive viewing experience second endangers itself. Because if the film is poor, it fails on two levels and its impact can be negative. It’s possible that DuVernay, the first black woman to helm a big-budget special effects film, may not get another chance like this (though she’s obviously very capable of directing something like Selma), and L’Engle’s books may never get adapted into film ever again.

If the argument is that A Wrinkle in Time is a film targeted at kids, it’s still unfortunate that it is easily forgettable and doesn’t hold a torch to the book. Objectively, it’s a film that stops and starts in fits that is far too superficial, and ultimately, quite boring.

A Wrinkle in Time gets two stars out of four.