'A Wrinkle in Time': What the Critics Are Saying

The Ava DuVernay-directed take on the Madeleine L'Engle novel transported reviewers to another world, but some are already looking at return flights.

Ava DuVernay's science-fiction film A Wrinkle in Time received mixed reviews when the first batch of criticism arrived on Wednesday. As of Wednesday afternoon, the film had a 46 percent freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Based on the children's novel of the same name, the story follows Meg Murry (Storm Reid), a smart young girl who is suffering due to the disappearance of her father. Three magical beings, Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), appear in her life and whisk Meg, her brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) and her friend Calvin (Levi Miller) through space and time. Their mission is to stop an evil force from consuming the universe and find Meg Murry's father (Chris Pine).

According to The Hollywood Reporter's chief film critic, Todd McCarthy, the intergalactic space explorations, written by Frozen's Jennifer Lee and The Bridge to Terabithia's Jeff Stockwell, "mostly feel rote, arbitrary rather than organic and, in the end, uninteresting; when in doubt, they always find another platitude.”

That was a common complaint among critics, especially those who have read the source material by Madeleine L'Engle. USA Today's Brian Truitt writes, “L'Engle's source material is a sneakily deep novel for youngsters, and Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell's screenplay doesn't do nearly enough with those themes of death, loss and parents letting their children down. Instead, theirs is a patchwork adaptation with weak character development, a lack of narrative groove and a haphazard finish.”

Vanity Fair critic Richard Lawson found it "rather hard to care about any of [the story] — partly because the movie doesn’t seem to."

"The film has a distracted air," he continues, "like someone telling you a halting story as they stare off into the distance, thinking of something else."

The distance that they're staring into might just be "Naomi Shohan's production design, which spans everything from Seussian fantasias to slate-grey wastelands to a beach filled with enough Day-Glo to blind an outer borough," according to David Fear from Rolling Stone.

The film takes the main characters from planet to planet: Earth to Uriel to Camazotz and everywhere in between. Each scene is full of "visual dazzle," says The New York Times' A.O. Scott. And he seemed to be a fan of the film overall, writing, "Fans of the book and admirers of Ms. DuVernay’s work — I include myself in both groups — can breathe a sigh of relief, and some may also find that their breath has been taken away. Mine was, once or twice, though I would describe the overall experience as satisfaction rather than awe."

Still, for some critics, the various locations don't quite work as a whole.

“The New Zealand location filming, the California locales and the elaborate soundstage environments never fully mesh into a coherent style,” for The Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips.

“As the film jumps from one unidentified world to another, there are certainly sights to behold," McCarthy writes, "a flying dragon, weird and gorgeous landscapes, the Mrs.'s constant makeup and wardrobe changes and an encounter with a character played by Zach Galifianakis whose utterances are about as amusing as his name, Happy Medium."

Some critics found Galifianakis' Happy Medium to be slightly scary. He's the exact opposite of the awe-inducing Mrs. characters. Their costumes were done by Paco Delgado with what David Fear called an "extraordinary everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink costume design." The actresses' performances, however, don't impress McCarthy as much as their outfits do.

"The three 'Mrs.' characters, who change makeup and wardrobe styles incessantly, are unequally balanced: Witherspoon has far more dialogue and screen time than the others and before long becomes annoyingly overbearing; Winfrey kind of floats through much of it making banal pronouncements, such as, 'If we do not act soon, darkness will fall across the universe'; and Kaling has unfairly little to say or do."

One critic, Brian Lowry from CNN, thinks "DuVernay made a shrewd move by enlisting Oprah Winfrey as one of her co-stars, which blesses the project with the billionaire's coveted seal of approval as well as her marketing clout."

"The tradeoff, though, is that her presence accentuates the underlying message of self-empowerment and learning to love oneself, in a way that makes the movie feel a bit more like an inordinately lavish after-school special than it otherwise might," Lowry continues.

One thing all of the critics agree on is the message of the film. Not only does A Wrinkle in Time promote diversity, but it also promotes self-confidence.

"There is something lovely about how A Wrinkle in Time is such a deeply sincere call for kids to see the value in themselves and others," Richard Lawson wrote in Vanity Fair. "And it does some exciting new things. Have we ever seen a $100 million movie take the time to, say, show a black female lead character coming to appreciate her natural hair? (Or, indeed, have a black female lead character to begin with?) And how many other $100 million movies have been so focused on emotion over action?"

Scott Mendelson of Forbes makes the important note that A Wrinkle in Time "is also the second time a woman of color has been given a $100M+ budget, after Jennifer Yuh Nelson’s still-awesome Kung Fu Panda 2 (which, up until Wonder Woman, was the biggest global grosser from a solo female filmmaker).” So, the movie is making strides on several fronts.

David Ehrlich from IndieWire argues that the film is breaking a barrier even without hitting all its marks creatively. "Working inside of the massive Disney machine to create a singularly personal spectacle that’s scale, confidence, and very existence do more than Meg’s story ever could to affirm what’s possible if you put your mind to it, DuVernay — characteristically blazing her own path — proves that a little imagination can go a long way," he writes in his review.

One thing to keep in mind while watching the film is that A Wrinkle in Time is a children's film. The Times' Scott offers a faithful piece of advice for anyone going to see the film this weekend: "The best way to appreciate what [DuVernay] has done is in the company of a curious and eager 10-year-old (as I was fortunate enough to do). Or, if you’re really lucky, to locate that innocent, skeptical, openhearted version of yourself.”

NPR's Linda Holmes also encourages a suspension of snark, "What Ava DuVernay's adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time asks is that this cynicism be temporarily laid down so that you can, in fact, be deeply moved by wisdom delivered by a giant, glowing Oprah. If you do, it's a profoundly satisfying, imaginative and beautiful film."

A Wrinkle in Time opens on March 9.