Few things are more disheartening than a family movie that strives to be both entertaining and uplifting but fails miserably at both. Ava DuVernay’s “A Wrinkle in Time” is based on the classic children’s book by Madeleine L’Engle, but the novel’s fans will probably be those most disappointed by it. Barely coherent, overburdened with unimpressive special effects and hobbled by unremittingly bad acting, it will confound and bore children and adults in equal measure.
As scripted by Jennifer Lee (the writer and co-director of “Frozen”), the film centers on Meg Murry (Storm Reid), whose astrophysicist father (Chris Pine) has been missing for four years, leaving her mother (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, wasted) and her genius-level younger brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) yearning for his return. Both Meg and Charles Wallace have trouble at school, the latter because he tends towards standoffishness and Meg because she’s regularly bullied by a coterie of mean girls, led by her next-door neighbor.
Things change when Charles Wallace is visited by a sprightly lady who calls herself Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), who, along with her sister-in-arms Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) and their powerful compatriot Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), teleport Meg, her brother and her newfound friend Calvin (Levi Miller) to the further reaches of the universe in search of Mr. Murry. After a visit to a lush, verdant realm dominated by flying flowers, they will proceed at times on the back of an amazing flying creature into which Mrs. Whatsit transforms herself.
Eventually after consulting a prophet of sorts called The Happy Medium (Zach Galifianakis, in a thoroughly perfunctory turn) the trio reaches the realm of Camazotz, where Charles Wallace is seduced by The It’s emissary Red-Eyed Man (Michael Peña, drab despite the effects) and, after a reunion with her father, Meg must confront The It to save them all and get back to earth.
There’s plenty of talk about love and family in the course of “Wrinkle,” but in the end despite its Christian underpinnings it seems a rather Manichaean tale of the eternal battle between darkness and light, with the nature of light being kept curiously unspecified, and the training of warriors like Meg (who’s compared here to Gandhi!) to fight the darkness. But the narrative is presented in such a careless, chaotic fashion that it’s impossible to make much sense of what’s happening. Who or what the three ladies represent is never really explained, and while Witherspoon and Kaling at least bring some energy to the proceedings, Winfrey offers little more than a dully magisterial presence. Pine is all scruffy blankness as Mr. Murry; in his later scenes he’s constantly saying “I’m sorry,” which could be the mantra of all the participants to the audience.
If the adults are ineffectual, the youngsters are simply bland. Reid and Miller have none of the charisma of the best child actors, but both are at least tolerable. That can’t be said of McCabe, who’s among the most irritating kids to hit the screen in recent memory. His line delivery is terrible, but at least when he’s reciting his bad dialogue, you’re not hearing somewhat else shouting “Charles Wallace!” (Everybody, for some reason, constantly addresses him by his full name, though why is a mystery; and since it’s repeated as often as the moniker of every doomed person who’s ever disappeared in a bad horror flick, the repetition becomes truly annoying.)
It’s difficult to tell what went so wrong here. Perhaps Lee was simply unable to wrestle the material into cinematic shape. Maybe it was thought necessary to pummel viewers with special effects (none of them of the first rank), which put narrative logic on the back burner. Or it could just be that DuVernay, working on her first big-budget project, found herself in over her head, or cinematographer Tobias Schliesser became a mere servant of Naomi Shohan’s overwrought production design and Paco Delgado’s ugly costumes, or editor Spencer Averick simply lost his way in trying to make sense of the tons of footage (way too much of it in slow motion).
Whatever the case, “A Wrinkle in Time” is a waste of yours.
A final note. There’s a curious similarity between “A Wrinkle in Time” and Michael Ende’s 1979 “The NeverEnding Story,” which was filmed in 1984 by Wolfgang Petersen. The “It” here is very much like the “Nothing” of Ende’s book and Petersen’s film, except that the Nothing’s threat is against the realm of Fantasia (of Fantastica). Whether Ende was dependent on L’Engle for inspiration, and whatever the relative merits of their books, the fact is that while Petersen’s film was an excellent one—stylish and (some would say overly) clear in its messaging—DuVernay’s is an incoherent mess, and not even a visually attractive one.