Friday, March 9, 2018

'A Wrinkle In Time' Could Use More Of The Latter

"I'd help you, Meg, but I can't move an inch in this thing."

There's a lot riding on Disney's A Wrinkle in Time. It's the first film adaptation of what is one of the most popular young adult books of all time; it's the first $100 million film to be directed by an African American woman; the cast is ethnically diverse; and the protagonist is a girl. Pair all that with the fact that the film is opening a few weeks after Black Panther, the biggest African American film success ever, a film I bet not even a surprise sequel to Black Panther could knock out of that top box office spot, and it's a lot of responsibility for one quirky science fiction film to shoulder.

And Ava DuVernay's film, from a screenplay by Frozen-scribe Jennifer Lee, is not an unmitigated disaster. It does a lot of things right, the best of which is wearing its heart on its sleeve; it's nice to see a kids movie that isn't bogged down by knowing winks or cynicism. (I cried more than once.)

Set in a city that looks a lot like Los Angeles, the story centers on brainy outcast Meg (Storm Reid), a teenager who's bullied at school by the popular crowd, while still mourning the sudden disappearance of her NASA scientist father (Chris Pine) four years earlier. She lives with her mother (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), also a scientist, and her precocious, and possibly psychic, adopted five-year-old brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe).

After standing up for herself at school, she catches the eye of the popular Calvin O'Keefe (Levi Miller) who is soon telling the self-conscious Meg that he likes her hair (a bit taken directly from the book, given some complicated added meaning with the casting of a black girl as Meg), while following her home for dinner.

These early scenes, along with the flashbacks to a younger Meg in her father's lab, prove that director DuVernay has a gift for directing young actors, and an ability to convey the inner insecurities of teenage girls. Is there another young adult novel she's willing to adapt? Maybe one with a story firmly planted in reality? Because it's when the fantasy starts to enter the film that A Wrinkle in Time falters

The first problem is the three "Mrs," the guiding forces who, in the book, take on different forms, most often appearing as old women, a conventional witch, or just...light. In the film, they are, the majority of the time, youngish, and corpreal. Reese Witherspoon is Mrs Whatsit, the chattiest and youngest (by a couple billion years). Mrs Who, who speaks almost entirely in famous quotations, is played by Mindy Kaling. And Mrs Which, the oldest and wisest of the three, is played by Oprah Winfrey, because of course.

The choice to glitter up their faces to within an inch of their lives, and layer them with miles and miles of the most unflattering fabrics imaginable is perplexing. Perhaps Oprah's blonde locks, and layers of metal and metallics are supposed to make her appear regal and strong, but it mainly looks like she couldn't move much, which is probably why she spends most of the film standing in one place. (Mindy Kaling, on the other hand, is forced to run down a hill wearing three feet of pannier on the sides of her skirt. There's no way to make that look graceful.)

"How come Oprah doesn't have to run??"

The kids adventures across the universe start out promising on the lush planet of Uriel, with its flying flowers and jutting mountains. Less enchanting is Mrs Whatsit's transformation into a flying fig leaf (wither the winged centaurs of the novel?) in a scene that veers into the silly when it should be magical.

The film gets less visually interesting as it moves on, making a stop on a dark lava rock planet to visit a seer known as the "Happy Medium" (Seth Galifianakis, bringing his trademarked and much needed deadpan comedy to the part), before landing on the conformity-filled planet of Camazotz, home to the universe's dark force, known simply, as IT, which is visualized, once again, as something akin to molten lava.

Not enough time is spent in any of these worlds, and the film, though two hours long, feels oddly rushed. Disney made a previous attempt to adapt A Wrinkle in Time into a miniseries in 2003, and while the result was terrible, the format feels more fitting for the material. If The Hobbit can be made into three movies, the same could certainly be done with Wrinkle.

Because the moments that are supposed to be the most awe-inspiring fall flat, it ends up being at its best when it's at its simplest. The pure joy Charles Wallace conveys at the beginning of the journey makes his turn at the end all the more heartbreaking. (Young Deric McCabe is really good.) An emotional moment between Meg and her father is effective because it is just raw emotion on screen, special effects-free. And Mrs Which's words of wisdom to young Meg, about self acceptance and inner strength, work because they're true, and because it's Oprah up there. No bedazzled eyebrows needed.

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