Cinematic Releases: A Wrinkle in Time (2018) - Reviewed

Disney’s adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time is what happens when a studio has boundless potential to bring a timeless, fantastical science fantasy to life and doesn’t live up to its own hype. Director Ava DuVernay gives us a lot of colorful visual symbolism as she tells the story of the Murry children, Meg and Charles Wallace, as they search the Universe for their missing father – but in a story so lushly fleshed out in wondrous worlds, where flowers “speak in color” and where gravity only holds up as long as a person believes it can, this adaptation’s focus is so tightly drawn around its characters that, instead of a series of brilliant adventures, what results is an allegory about depression and self-acceptance. This might have worked with a different story, but it feels shoehorned in here, and although there are some genuinely genius design choices in this movie, it falls short when we consider what might have been. 

Those who love the original 1962 novel will be disappointed to note that this version of events is much more rushed, leaving out huge swathes of the story, which was originally the beginning of a series of five novels. The expansive Universe through which the Murry children and their neighbor, Calvin O’Keefe, travel with the aid of three mystical beings is a far tamer one in this film; indeed, the wild eccentricities of the “beings of light” who help the children in their quest are dimmed down quite a bit in this adaptation, seemingly to allow for them to fit into the allegorical narrative. Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), who in the novel is a maternal, loving being with great wisdom and knowledge about the worlds they visit, is in this version of events a snide, catty novice who has no qualms telling Meg that she is unworthy of the journey. Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), widely peculiar and fond of breaking into other languages in the book, is toned down to become a quiet sage. And Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), who for much of the book is a disembodied, echoing voice who sometimes appears as pure light, becomes a stoic “magical grandmother” figure in this film. Visually, the characters are gorgeously outfitted – but the way the story here focuses so heavily on Meg and how she feels about herself, they are largely superfluous, which is unfortunate because they served as such integral guides and mentors in the book, and help teach the children that adults do not always know everything children believe they do, and that young people are far smarter and better equipped to deal with life than they think.

For those who have never read the novel or are unfamiliar with the series, there is a lot to take in visually, and there are some genuinely breathtaking scenes – Mrs. Whatsit transforms into a gorgeous green dragon-like creature on planet Uriel, with the face of a Wendy Pini elf and the body of a ribbon flatworm that shimmies through the sunlight in hues of emerald, violet, and shimmering pearl. Each planet is a lush environment – Uriel is colorful and peaceful, Orion is mineral and misty, and the dark world of Camazotz shifts and changes depending on what the characters need to perceive it to be. But even without memories of the novel’s settings to help put the story in context, the film is substandard – so much time is spent focusing closely on the characters that the fantasy elements of the different worlds, and indeed the act of “tessering” (traveling through the Universe by tesseract, which is explained as literal “wrinkles”, or folds, in space-time), are lost to mere visual metaphor. Much of the movie is built of tight, close shots of characters’ faces, either reacting or considering things that have happened –

instead of expanding outward into precise storytelling, it fritters its opportunities to close in on the characters’ emotions. It lacks the necessary balance to create excitement and suspense as Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin stumble through unfamiliar worlds literal light-years away from anything they know, imperiling their lives to find the Murry patriarch and bring him home to their grieving mother and to their empty lives on Earth.

There is also a distinct tendency, of which the film itself seems acutely aware, toward simplifying the complex philosophical and spiritual themes of the story, and this is captured stringently in its choice of pop music to underscore its most important scenes rather than utilizing a more traditional, orchestral arrangement. It is careful not to dig too deeply into the themes that it tries to present, but in redirecting the universal ideas present in the novel to shoehorn in lessons about loving yourself and embracing your flaws to find the metaphorical light in the darkness does a disservice to the story. Again, there is a lack of balance here; the modern setting works for the characters, and indeed, the darkness and treachery of Camazotz as it is ruled by IT (called “The It” in this film) seems tailored to represent feelings of despair, but taking such a timeless and relevant children’s novel and adapting it for today doesn’t need to, and really shouldn’t, feel like it’s pandering to its current generation or trying to unrealistically portray the cycle of depression. It should flow like other movies in its genre which stand the test of decades due to excellent storytelling and world-building – Labyrinth, The NeverEnding Story, Return to Oz – contrasting the mundanity and sadness of the human world with the strange, beautiful otherworlds that reflect our own society back to us in exaggeration, or caricature, or turning expectation on its head.

There is the sense that we are not watching real people experiencing unreal adventures – there is too much stilted dialogue and far too little relevant action to keep things interesting. The relationships between the characters don’t seem to develop organically over the course of the film, even though they are given ample time and opportunities. The most fantastical characters in the entire film, the three “Mrs. Ws”, are given the least to do, and it feels like so much possibility was squandered, because they are such wonderful characters and should have had a much larger role, as they did in the novel. While ultimately, the lessons are undoubtedly Meg’s and Calvin’s, the warmth and wisdom of the guardians of the light realms which made the books so joyful to get lost in when we, too, were young and fighting through the darkness to get back to safety and selfhood, would have added so very much to this disjointed, hurried tale. And when one considers how much could have been accomplished with a Disney budget and better storytelling, this really could have been just such a triumphant entry into the genre.

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-Dana Culling