Good news: Ava DuVernay and her team have proven that they can indeed film a *good visual adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s beloved A Wrinkle in Time.
Bad news: They sure couldn’t write one.
Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time is another fine example of corporations commodifying old beloved stories. This film is the Hollywood equivalent of the low-budget introductory video looping above the line for a big-name theme park ride based on a thirty-year-old property that has no business getting extra-canonical spin-offs in the form of nauseating 4D roller-coasters. A Wrinkle in Time doesn’t even do you the courtesy of providing a fun ride at the end of the line either; just half-baked faux-cerebral set-pieces that bastardize the novel’s driving themes of spirituality and personal triumph through determination and individuality. This movie is spoiled by absolutely abhorrent pro-bullying and anti-teaching messages that mingle merrily with the nobly intended themes of self-respect and self-acceptance. It feels like the product of four arguing authoritative voices who passed out on the cutting room floor while a 14-year-old fan-fiction writer snuck in and finished editing the film.
I will confess I’ve never read A Wrinkle in Time, and I only vaguely remember the early-2000s Canadian mini-series adapting the novel, but I do remember that series absolutely baking my prepubescent brain with – admittedly – half-cocked visual effects that cloaked a baffling but immersive adventure through time and space. A Wrinkle in Time is supposed to be challenging, spiritual, scientifically-bent but with a respect for the unknowable, and life-affirming. The irony of Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time is that a film based on a novel beloved for championing intelligence treats the kids in its audience like total idiots.
Doubtlessly people will disagree with this assertion – plenty will claim that because A Wrinkle in Time makes no attempt to explain the science or the mechanics behind its fantasy, it must be the type of good film that treats kids like intelligent small humans who don’t need everything handed to them on a silver platter. This is true! It’s a point for which the filmmakers should be commended. The tesseract-mambo catapulting our heroes Meg (Storm Reid), Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), and whitest-boy Calvin (Levi Miller) through time and space is never explained via erudite science-speak or (God help us) yet another ‘I’ll-fold-this-piece-of-paper-to-explain-to-you-how-wormholes-work’ visual aid. The problem is, while the film makes no half-hearted attempts to condescend to kids about physics and plot, it certainly loves to preach about its own flawed morality.
The supporting cast seemingly only exists to remind audience surrogate Meg of the vast array of philosophical ideologies she has to choose from. Her younger brother Charles Wallace is the dewey-eyed faithful optimist, white-boy Calvin is the quiet yet insightful diplomat (and love interest) with a clumsy abusive father side-plot, her father (Chris Pine) is the Campbellian Father with divine dreams of greatness, her mother (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is the tired intellect, woefully underrepresented in the adventure (a fitting allegory for black women in STEM), and the interdimensional demigods Mrs. Which (Oprah), Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) and Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) are the benevolent matriarch, the wise guru and the free-spirited ingenue, respectively. That’s it. There are no layers to anyone. No character exists beyond the specter of their allegory. Meanwhile, a noticeable inconsistency between tone and style emerges when these characters approach awe-inspiring experiences with a childlike acceptance and ease that invokes The Neverending Story and Labyrinth, and yet this mature decision is unfailingly hampered by the classic Hollywood melodrama of big fantasy set-pieces. Meg (Reid) will react with the steady gaze of a child for whom the unbelievable was always possible, but rather than emphasize the confident wonder of that reaction, the film will throw in some big-ass Michael Bay 360° dolly-shot before cutting to a sweeping pan of a glabrous CGI playground. It’s boorish and uninspired filmmaking straight from studio paradigm.
It’s fine to argue that A Wrinkle in Time is a fable, extant only for the purposes of symbolic storytelling, but it’s also impossible to argue that same point and then claim that this film was made for children, and that only cynical adults will consider a lack of complex characters to be a notable flaw. I’m so sick of hearing from other adults that it’s impossible for adults to critique A Wrinkle in Time. First of all, what kids today are these people referencing? – kids who watch surrealist-horror videos on their parents’ iPads, consuming endless streams of unstructured spectacle, content junkies on the high of digitization? If so, yeah, I guess A Wrinkle in Time is just a jumble of half-concocted images bound by thin threads of sophistic bullshit, so that fits.
This belief also implies no adult can possibly remember what it was like to be a child, or empathize with a child, or connect with the feelings of a child. This is a condemnable notion when you consider half these internet pundits claiming such also claim to be storytellers. How can you purport to be a storyteller if you can’t remember what it was like to still believe in them? Have we not all been children? Do we not all remember what it was like to be both wowed by the spectacle of a beautiful film and engaged by the characters who lived up there on the screen? A Wrinkle in Time makes no attempt to engage kids – or anyone for that matter – with any characters besides Meg, and the flat writing keeps her from truly articulating her many complex emotions until she is forced to literally speak her feelings aloud, one by one, during the final battle – like the best-scripted version of a therapy session gone too well.
This film proves a classic sci-fi/fantasy axiom – you can give veteran actors lousy fantasy dialogue (Lord of the Rings) and they’ll usually pull something out of it, but you can’t give it to kids (Dune). No matter how good the director is or how talented the performers are, hearing a six-year-old child ‘prodigy’ deliver lines like “You so very much gloriously tessered!” is like snorting Jager through a straw. The rest of the performances are all over the place – Chris Pine and Gugu Mbatha-Raw alternate between heartbreaking and cringe-worthy, Oprah looks bored, Mindy Kaling does the best with her gimmicky writing, and Reese Witherspoon turns Luna Lovegood into Heather Chandler on cocaine.
Speaking of Reese Witherspoon, this film is pro-bullying. Mrs. Whatsit spends the whole of the film badgering and belittling Meg for her many flaws – namely, her cynicism and suspicion. Before the final battle, Mrs. Whatsit throws in one final dig, only to invite Meg to embrace all those same issues she (Mrs. Whatsit) had spent the entire first two thirds of the movie mocking without recourse. The message plays out like some weird cross between “your flaws make you who you are” (good) and “anytime someone insults you or tells you you’re no good, they’re just testing you to make sure you don’t abandon your principles” (bad). Kids aren’t idiots. They see that this film portrays every teacher or adult in power as either a gossiping idiot or an apathetic bureaucrat. Even Meg’s mother comes off as disaffected and unapproachable. Nobody besides Oprah affirms anyone else until the very end, when it’s almost too late. Everything about this film encourages the viewer to believe that all adults are bad unless they happen to be billion-year-old cosmic warriors with snarky attitudes. Not only does this encourage kids to suck it up and deal with problems on their own (horrible idea), it actively encourages them to not seek help from adults, something every brochure in an educator’s office will rightfully tell you to always do!
Regarding the parents’ vanilla gender-normative relationship – how come Chris Pine is portrayed as selfish and ‘masculine’ for taking risks while his wife is portrayed as dutiful and noble for staying home with the kids? Mrs. Murry is a talented scientist who does half the work on her husband’s project, and yet she doesn’t get to go on a galactic adventure with Oprah. I suppose women better get their dreaming out of the way when they’re young, because once they grow up they gotta’ perform their roles. Also, how dare this movie – supposedly for ‘children’ – imply that all the evil in the world is created by an ur-devil lurking in the cosmos that infects people with feelings of anger, jealousy and greed? Are kids too stupid these days to be told that some people have problems? Are kids too stupid to believe in rehabilitation, to believe in the complexity of humanity? Do they need to be spoon-fed some theistic bullshit about The Darkness? It’s not about hopefulness vs. cynicism, it’s about didacticism vs. nuance.
Ava DuVernay has gone on record about her goal to craft a complex, relatable, and intelligent black girl on screen. I’m the last person who can critique the effectiveness of her efforts, but I truly believe Storm Reid’s Meg is the saving grace of this film. She’s an engaging and well-developed character – inquisitive, relatable, complex, deeply conflicted – and a beacon for representation. It’s just such a shame the rest of the film seeks to conspire against her at every turn. Perhaps there’s something meta-allegorical in the notion of an entire universe endeavoring to dismantle and belittle young blackness. If that’s the case, the film succeeds – but a depressingly true allegory does not an engaging story make, and the lack of affirmation from other characters and the dearth of cohesive storytelling leaves Meg (pardon the pun) adrift in space, the only fully-realized element in an ugly, half-cocked melange.
This movie is a colossal insult to children and thinking people everywhere. The non-diegetic soundtrack seems as if it was tacked on halfway through the editing process and DJ Khaled shows up in the end credits. Mindy Kaling quotes Lin-Manuel Miranda, further turning one of the most promising artists of our time into yet another commodity. A Wrinkle in Time demonstrates the dangers of adaptation, particularly when the source material is sixty years old, and reminds us that some of our great stories should stay in the past, unfettered and unbound by the ills of modern lenses. Take your kids to go see it if they want. They’ll end up like the little boy in the row behind me, yawning sullenly through the entire third act.
Stunning visual effects, gorgeous cinematography, and powerful scenes from Storm Reid’s phenomenal Meg do not absolve the clumsy and misguided A Wrinkle in Time of its many sins, ranging from annoying-but-forgivable to downright harmful. This film is a textbook example of big studio power gone awry, inconsistent and unengaging in its efforts to prioritize spectacle over substance.