Review: A Wrinkle in Time

I never read A Wrinkle in Time. But I wanted to see Disney’s recent film adaptation because of the beautiful visuals and hints of trippy inter-dimensional travel.

The visuals definitely impress. Costume Designer Paco Delgado is listed prominently toward the start of the credits, and this is well-deserved: the various costumes of the Mmes. Whatsit, Who, and Which are absolutely beautiful, extravagant and popping with color. That color is almost matched by the vibrant environments, and while truly bizarre alien landscapes are disappointingly rare, those that appear are a treat. Most of the impressive visuals have less to do with an unusual scene and more to do with a changing one, as the powerful forces in this universe’s cosmology rework themselves and the world around them.

The acting is also admirable. It is hard to imagine anyone other than Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, and Oprah Winfrey in their respective roles as the Mmes. Whatsit, Who, and Which. Storm Reid is able to deliver on the most emotional scenes as young protagonist Meg. And Deric McCabe steals almost every scene he’s in as Meg’s precocious, charming little brother, Charles Wallace; McCabe does many scenes light and sweet, but later in the film he also excels in a pouty, diabolic role, and he sounds convincingly wizened and erudite in his line delivery throughout. Additionally, Chris Pine is very charming as Meg’s lost father, Michael Peña shifts from goofy bro to sinister puppet with considerable charisma, and Zach Galifianakis is very Zach Galifianakis as a seer known as the Happy Medium. The only weak link in the main cast is Levi Miller, who plays Meg’s friend/romantic interest/fellow outcast Calvin; Miller is sweet but not given very much to do, other than gaze longingly on Meg.

Also worthy of mention, the music was mostly supportive of the emotional moment, except for one or two occasions where a particularly sappy pop song cut in.

The true failing of this movie is in plot. Having not read the book, I can’t say how much is a failing of director Ava DuVernay and screenwriters Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell versus the source material by Madeleine L’Engle.

The film’s central conceit–that evil is not native to the human condition, that we can triumph over our baser impulses by developing and preserving love and hope–is probably misaligned with how many people think about the world, but if you can accept the message (which, I think, is a wonderful message for children’s entertainment), then it’s not any more ridiculous than the metaphysics of Star Wars. There’s even a short speech about jealousy and fear leading to anger and ultimately violence or even worse things.

I saw the film with my wife, and she rejected the idea of evil being a literally external force within the cosmology of even the film’s fictional universe. I get it; it’s a hard (though sweet) pill to swallow and doesn’t really square with reality. This made the entire experience for her more grating. I had similar reservations but was able to shove them to the back of my mind, mostly.

On top of this simplistic cosmology, we are fed a lot of spiritualist woo. Much of this woo is in the form of faddish quantum philosophy that could come straight from the mouth of Deepak Chopra–or Oprah, whose character gets many of the silliest affirmational lines.

I won’t say that there are obvious plot holes. Most of my questions were answered by sticking around, at least obliquely. But it felt after a while that the film kept deliberately withholding the bigger picture, inserting only enough information from time to time to fill in gaps that appeared. And I did have lingering questions:

  • If Meg’s father could just hop around the universe at his leisure until he was captured by the It (the dark, evil force in the film), why didn’t he just stop by home at some point to let everyone know what he was up to?
  • How does time work, exactly, if Meg’s father didn’t realize four years had passed but the protagonists return home to their mother at the end without any apparent lapse in time at all?
  • Did Meg’s neighborhood rival see everyone teleport back at the end, so that’s why she’s sort of shocked and friendlier–and if so, why isn’t she freaking out that people just warped into the backyard out of nowhere?
  • Why, exactly, did the Mmes. need Meg or Charles Wallace to locate their father, if a picture was enough for the Mmes. alone to figure out the rest? Until they went to the Happy Medium, what were the children vital for?
  • How did Charles Wallace come to know the Mmes., exactly, and why did they reach out to the youngest child (this can partly be answered, presumably, by his loving heart)?
  • Are Charles Wallace and Meg special in some way? Why do they get powers like Force push on the home planet of the It?
  • How does tessering, the inter-dimensional instantaneous travel, work exactly? What do the characters mean when they say they just need the right “frequency”? How can a human just access this frequency with their own mind, apparently just by thinking on it, and why can’t other humans readily do this without an advanced understanding of physics? On the subject of physics questions, why does the science-smart “Meg” never question the idea of what an “evil energy” is, exactly?

The ending of the film raised more questions, particularly in how the family could so readily accept a decision that Chris Pine’s character made in the third act. Love and hope and forgiveness represent our better traits, so maybe we are just to accept that Meg and Charles Wallace forgive their father for this pretty awful and selfish thing he did. But I can’t imagine that wouldn’t lead to some fraying.

The experience of watching this film was in many ways like Avatar: beautiful sci-fi visual spectacle, with an uninteresting and uninspired plot.

Having not read the book, I can’t say whether fans would warm to this film adaptation. But I suspect, given the book’s classic status, that the film fails to deliver on the promise of its source material.

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