Buckling under the weight of its own aspirations, Ava DuVernay’s ambitious but flawed adaptation of adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s perennially popular sci-fi fantasy occasionally dazzles but all too often trips over its own feet.
Four years after their scientist father disappeared, Meg (Storm Reid) and her adopted brother Charles Wallis (Deric McCabe) are told he is still alive by the quirky and mysterious Mrs Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon). Joined by their friend Calvin (Levi Miller), they are brought to meet Mrs Who (Mindy Kaling) and eventually Mrs Which (Oprah Winfrey) and the six of them journey out into the universe to rescue their father.
If there was a weight of expectation on Disney’s second attempt to adapt “A Wrinkle In Time”, much of it was self-inflicted. From the trailer’s self-congratulatory pronouncement of the film coming from ‘visionary’ director Ava DuVernay (“Selma”) and a screenplay by Jennifer Lee (“Frozen”, “Wreck-It Ralph”, “Zootropolis”) rewriting a first draft by Jeff Stockwell (“Bridge To Teribithia”), there seems to have been a concerted effort to use the film as a vehicle for ideas and themes which don’t quite fit with the story, resulting in a sort of thematic clown car which careers from point to point, components flying in all directions as it increasingly falls apart.
Some of the problems can be traced back to the source novel for example, the character name ‘Charles Wallace’ feels awkward and clumsily long, at least to my British ears and as such its incessant repetition in dialogue quickly becomes grating. The novel’s C S Lewis-esque Christian subtext has been jettisoned in favour of a more generic good vs evil dichotomy, with a replacement focus on the empowerment of Meg in particular, although this too is constantly undermined by a screenplay which keeps Meg petulant and off-putting for too long and constantly feels the need to remind us that Charles Wallace is the chosen, special one.
Visually, the film’s middle act is a real treat. It takes a while to get going and get our heroes off Earth but when it does, especially visiting the planet Uriel, it’s at its strongest. Unfortunately, this forms the movie’s high point and it’s pretty much downhill from there. The reality-wrinkling and surreal adventures which follow sacrifice coherent storytelling in favour of a barrage of CGI set pieces until these too finally peter out and we’re left with a final act in which nothing feels earned or natural and character choices are made in service of the needs of the plot to resolve rather than organically, and the film starts breaking its own rules (Mrs Who speaks only in attributed quotations, a fun and novel idea, until she doesn’t because the film needs her to impart some information that the makers couldn’t find a quote for) just to get across the finishing line.
The performances are a mixed bag, with Oprah coming off as particularly uncomfortable with the role and requirements of such an effects-heavy production. Kaling and Witherspoon manage to keep their quirkiness charming and the children, although a little stiff, are decent enough. It’s Chris Pine, surprisingly, who impresses the most in a surprisingly emotional and heartfelt performance, until the script requires his character to make such a breathtakingly egregious Sophie’s choice which undercuts the entire emotional underpinning of the movie.
There’s no doubting DuVernay’s sincerity and ambition in trying to pull off this grand fantasy but she’s compromised by a confused and disjointed script and some stiff performances from her more experienced cast members. It’s still a serviceable family fantasy and, although it has echoes of “The Neverending Story” and “Tomorrowland: A World Beyond”, it never quite matches up to the iconic former and I can’t defend it as strongly as I would the latter. No matter its flaws, it certainly didn’t deserve the vicious backlash it received on message boards and crowd-sourced scoring sites as those who were thwarted in their vicious attempts to derail the “Black Panther” juggernaut turned on this film as their ‘consolation prize’.