Before Disney’s big-budget, live-action adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s classic 1962 novel A Wrinkle in Time begins, its director, Ava DuVernay, appears on the screen. (At least this is what happened at the showing I attended; I can’t be sure it will be true of all of them.) DuVernay describes the film as about finding “the light in yourself,” before advising, “Embrace the inner child in you … Sit back, relax, and be a kid again.”
Now I confess, my first thought upon hearing this was that DuVernay was advising the critics in attendance not to be too, you know, critical—an admonition likely to achieve a precisely opposite result. But while criticism requires skepticism, it should not curdle into cynicism. And the truth is that, judged on its own terms, A Wrinkle in Time is a pretty good, perhaps even a quite good, movie. But it is a children’s movie. See it with a child or—as DuVernay recommends—with a child’s wonder. Otherwise, probably don’t bother seeing it at all.
As the story opens, 13-year-old Meg Murry (Storm Reid) is in a state of near-perpetual misery. Her beloved scientist-father (Chris Pine) vanished off the face of the Earth four years earlier, and her beloved scientist-mother (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) doesn’t comprehend the depth of her sadness. Although gifted, Meg does poorly in school and is easily baited by Mean Girls. As her principal (André Holland) explains, “You’re aggressive, you’re hostile, and you wonder why people don’t like you.”
Meg’s principal consolation is her 5-year-old adopted brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), a child prodigy who, it turns out, has been making some unusual friends. The first to appear is Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), offering a daffy, kinetic spin on a fairy godmother, right down to her confectionary costumery. Next comes Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), who has evolved beyond speech and communicates by offering the quotations of others, varying from the Sufi mystic Rumi to Lin-Manuel Miranda. And finally, we meet Mrs. Which, the leader of the “Mrs. Ws” and a being so powerful that she is played by Oprah Winfrey. (When the film was being shot, I suspect her character was conceived of as being “regal”; these days, she might opt for “presidential.” In any case, it can hardly be an accident that when she first materializes there’s an accidental size discrepancy, with her human form standing 20 feet tall.)
The Mrs. Ws tell Meg and Charles Wallace that they will help them to find their father, who as a result of his experiments has traveled across the universe and gotten himself lost. Along for the ride will be Calvin (Levi Miller), a slightly older boy on whom Meg has a visible—and visibly reciprocated—crush. And they will make their journey by “tessering,” a verb form of tesseract that involves folding (or “wrinkling”) space-time. “You just have to find the right frequency and have faith in who you are,” Mrs. Which explains.
So with a sort of rainbow-version of a Star Wars hyperspace jump (minus any actual spaceship) our half-dozen heroes transport themselves to a gorgeous, sunlit planet. There, they check in with a flock of chittering orchids and Mrs. Whatsit turns herself into a giant lettuce-leaf that undulates across the sky like a manta ray. (The first effect is better than the second.) They visit a seer called the “Happy Medium” (Zach Galifianakis), and finally determine that Meg and Charles Wallace’s dad has been captured by the IT. (As in “it,” but more imposing; I don’t think information technology existed as a term in 1962.) The IT, we learn, is “a purely evil energy … an evil that is spreading through the universe.” So: like 4chan, only worse.
The kids inevitably have to leave their cosmic guides behind and travel to the planet Camazotz to confront the IT alone. Here, the technicolor palette that has prevailed becomes darker and film accordingly creepier. (Littler ones may require a snuggle.) When Charles Wallace has his mind taken over after gazing into the hypnotic red eyes of the IT’s underling (Michael Peña), it—lower case—all comes down to Meg …
Some of the messages of the film—about the importance of believing in oneself and the like—are commonplace and enunciated all too clearly. But the more important ones are woven directly into its fabric. DuVernay is the first African American woman to direct a $100 million movie, and she’s noted that “a cast that reflects the real world” was of particular importance to her. Although Meg and the adopted Charles Wallace are both mixed race, this is never turned into a plot point; it’s treated as a fact so unexceptional as to be mundane. Likewise, too, with the diversity of the actresses who play the Mrs. Ws: Not making a big deal about it is, in its own way, a big deal.
DuVernay’s film trims elements of L’Engle’s book here and there: Meg doesn’t have twin 10-year-old brothers, for instance, and there’s no encounter with Aunt Beast. There are times—again, I’m thinking of Mrs.-Whatsit-as-flying-salad—when the movie leans a little too heavily on its sumptuous special effects. But it’s refreshing to see a kids’ movie that’s content to remain just that, and doesn’t feel a need to douse itself in pop references or inside jokes. Find the right frequency, and you just might enjoy yourself.