"A Wrinkle in Time" arrived in theaters heavy with the weight of expectation. As an adaptation of Madeleine L'Engle's beloved 1962 sci-fi novel and the first $100 million movie from a black female director, the film serves as quite the challenge for director Ava DuVernay. Add in the fact that the material she's adapting has long been considered unfilmable -- despite one previous attempt back in 2003 -- and it seems an unfair burden to place on any one feature.
And while DuVernay's film doesn't always succeed at everything it sets out to do, there's something thrilling in its messiness and the way its ambitions can sometimes exceed its grasp. I'd take DuVernay's imaginative and endearingly eccentric hand with the material over the cookie-cutter filmmaking of the average blockbuster any day.
"A Wrinkle in Time" tells the story of Meg Murry (newcomer Storm Reid), the daughter of two scientist parents (played by Chris Pine and Gugu Mbatha-Raw). As the film opens, Meg is still reeling from the four-year absence of her father, who disappeared without a trace shortly after her parents claimed to have developed a form of time travel. With her father gone, the rest of the family are barely holding things together.
Then the family is visited by three magical beings: flighty Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon); Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), who speaks only in quotations; and wise, benevolent Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey, in a role that basically amounts to typecasting). The trio say they can help Meg find her father, and soon whisk her off on a journey through time and space, along with Meg's schoolmate and pseudo-crush object, Calvin (Levi Miller), and her precocious younger brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe). In the process, they're forced to confront a vaguely-defined evil force known as the It, which threatens to send our world permanently into darkness.
As a director, DuVernay is fascinatingly versatile. She followed up her Oscar-nominated Martin Luther King Jr. biopic, "Selma," with the also-nominated documentary "13th," then moved into television production, and now she's taken on a big-budget, blockbuster family film. I love that she feels no compunction in jumping around through various genres and form, taking on projects in any area that she feels like she has something to contribute.
DuVernay chooses to aim her adaptation squarely at children, allowing the story to remain relatively simplistic in its language and themes. The resulting film is message-heavy, emphasizing ideas about the ties of family and the affirmation of self. Meg figures her way through her adventure with her wits and a knowledge of science, and for all the narrative's fantastical elements this is a story about the character discovering her own self-worth. As her journey goes on, Meg learns to love herself, flaws and all -- fitting, since the film that surrounds her often feels as flawed as she is -- while also coming to understand that the adults in her life are just as imperfect as she is.
The screenplay, by Jennifer Lee ("Frozen") and Jeff Stockwell ("Bridge to Terabithia"), substitutes the novel's Christian subtext with a more broad-minded humanism. The script does contain some occasionally wonky dialogue; there's an early scene between a pair of teachers having a stilted, expository conversation about Meg's downward spiral after the disappearance of her father that's fairly cringe-inducing. But the film mostly recovers from those early missteps. A few of the story's problems stem from the source material; there are a lot of scenes where characters stand around explaining things to each other, though sometimes it succeeds in expanding on some of the novel's ideas, adding motivation to some of its characters' more inexplicable actions.
As Meg, Storm Reid is the glue that holds the film together, and she rises to the challenge. For such a young actress, she's excellent at portraying a character who's still growing into herself and gradually becoming more certain in her abilities. She handles herself well throughout, though her scenes with Pine are among the film's strongest and most moving.
The film is also frequently dazzling to look at. The sequences on the verdant planet of Uriel verge on "Alice in Wonderland" CGI overload, but the movie eventually finds a more restrained, no less eye-popping aesthetic as it conjures up some truly striking imagery.
In terms of adaptation, L'Engle's novel comes with a high degree of difficulty. If "A Wrinkle in Time" were just an ambitiously flawed misfire, it would probably still be worth watching. But Ava DuVernay has created a sweet and deeply sincere film that empowers its young viewers to rise up against the forces of evil, cynicism, and cruelty. It's a story admirably concerned with putting goodness out into the world, and I can't imagine a more worthy goal for any piece of art.