Only the faintest glimmers of genuine, earned emotion pierce through the layers of intense calculation that encumber Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time. Disney’s lavish adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s fantastical 1962 book (there were four sequels) about a girl’s journey through multiple dimensions to find her long-missing father may provide enough distractions to keep kids in the lowest double-digits age range interested. All the same, DuVernay’s first big-budget studio extravaganza after breaking through with Selma and the great documentary 13th feels cobbled together with many diverse parts rather that coalesced into an engaging whole. Even if this is widely consumed by the target audience, it doesn’t charm or disarm.
The film centers on 13-year-old Meg (Storm Reid), who has a black mother (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a white father (Chris Pine) — the latter a scientist who’s been missing for four years — and a mixed-race 6-year-old adopted brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe). Then there’s the trio of benevolent, diverse and other-worldly overseers (Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling) who evidently have nothing better to do wherever they come from than to facilitate Meg’s inter-galactic search for her dad and to utter endless self-esteem-raising platitudes like “You can do this!” and “You are a warrior!”
Although Meg is very bright, like everyone else in her family, she hasn’t been the same since Dad disappeared. Little Charles Wallace, who’s always referred to by both names, is a real smarty pants (he has all the best lines, and McCabe does a nice job with them) and exasperates Meg. Meg also has an ever-attentive and cute would-be boyfriend, Calvin (Levi Miller).
When the three women — Mrs. Which (Winfrey), Mrs. Whatsit (Witherspoon) and Mrs. Who (Kaling) — suddenly materialize much in the manner of the Good Witch from the North in you-know-what, Meg is enlightened about the existence of something called the tesser, a warp in time and space that might enable her to find her father on the other side, where he’s suspected to be trapped. Charles Wallace and Calvin are not about to be left behind, and so the journey begins.
What comes thereafter is, unfortunately, not anywhere nearly as eventful, enchanting or musically beguiling as its old Hollywood precursor. The challenging events facing the inter-galactic explorers, both stemming from the book and dreamed up by scenarists Jennifer Lee (Disney’s screenwriting queen ever since Frozen) and Jeff Stockwell (The Bridge to Terabithia), mostly feel rote, arbitrary rather than organic and, in the end, uninteresting; when in doubt, they always find another platitude.
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.
The film is most tolerable when it remains centered on the three kids, their bickering and their underlying “there for you” inter-dependency. Meg is appealing because you know that behind her reticence lies a smart and resourceful girl who will one day be able to fully assert herself without having to be told every five minutes that, “You just have to have faith in who you are.” Calvin remains too blandly “nice” to be an interesting character but fills the bill as eye candy for younger teen girls, while Charles Wallace is, by the film’s modest standards, something of a hoot as the preternaturally sharpest kid in the neighborhood, be it on Earth or elsewhere.
As the pic jumps from one unidentified world to another, there are certainly sights to behold — a flying dragon, weird and gorgeous landscapes, the Mrs.’ constant makeup and wardrobe changes and an encounter with a character played by Zach Galifianakis whose utterances are about as amusing his name, Happy Medium. But after impressing so with her earlier work both in features and documentaries, what’s disconcerting here is DuVernay’s inability to forge a strong or supple visual style. Most scenes are dominated by far too much cutting between shots that bear no spatial relationships to one another, to the point where the compositions look arbitrary; it all seems manufactured rather than crafted, with scenes played and over-edited to visually busy but indifferent effect.
As a result, one’s engagement with the likeable enough characters starts flagging in the final third as the air escapes the balloon. On top of that, the bromides about the primacy of family and being true to yourself are signaled, but not earned.
Production company: Whitaker Entertainment
Distributor: Buena Vista
Cast: Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Storm Reid, Levi Miller, Deric McCabe, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Michael Pena, Zach Galifianakis, Chris Pine, Andre Holland, Rowan Blanchard
Director: Ana DuVernay
Screenwriters: Jennifer Lee, Jeff Stockwell, based on the novel by Madeleine L’Engle
Producers: Jim Whitaker, Catherine Hand
Executive producers: Doug Merrifield, Adam Borba
Director of photography: Tobias Schliessler
Production designer: Naomi Shohan
Costume designer: Paco Delgado
Editor: Spencer Averick
Music: Ramin Djawadi
Visual effects supervisor: Rich McBride
Casting: Aisha Coley
Rated PG, 110 minutes