Review: "A Wrinkle in Time"

So yeah, let's spend 20 minutes flying around Pandora from Avatar but let's leave off the part that makes the plot work...


"There is such a thing as a tesseract" -- Miss WhatsIt

I'll never forget the day I read Madeline L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time for the first (and thus far only) time.  I was in 4th grade--11 years old--and I was in my Aunt Norie's house in Highway 205.  My mom dropped me off, and I was alone for hours.   I can't remember the occasion exactly, and especially the reason for my solitude, but it didn't matter.

I had a book.  I had the book.  I had A Wrinkle in Time.

Over the next six or so hours, I devoured the book.  I don't remember eating lunch or going to the bathroom.  L'Engle created not just a world, but a Universe, a story that spanned a galaxy and plumbed the depth of Love, Light, and Freedom.  I talked my poor mom's ear off about the book, then never mentioned it again.

The Nineties can have Harry Potter.  "You're a wizard, Harry!" can never match "There is such a thing as a tesseract" spoken by a former star.  (yes, as in a celestial object).

Thus, I just saw A Wrinkle in Time.

Is it any good?

Well...It tries to be.  Roughly one third of it is.  It's not really worth your time, sadly.

** Mild Spoilers ahead **

Things begin poorly when director Ava DuVernay appears just before the movie, speaking directly to camera giving us, "I hope you enjoy this movie.  We enjoyed making it."  I found this intro, with behind-the-scenes footage quite literally preposterous, in the sense that it's reversed.  Peter Jackson made Lord of the Rings as a labor of love, filming something once thought unfilmable.   Did his Hobbitness show up before the opening credits? Nope

The plot falls into roughly three acts:

  • An after-school special about tween life.
  • A brief Hero's journey with lots of spectacle (and a very large Oprah Winfrey), but little challenge or substance.
  • The climax that takes place (essentially) in the pit of Hell ("A place of pure evil"), with a redemption narrative, cathartic reunion, and an ending that (sadly) makes no sense because they cut out the part that would've made it sensible.

It Starts...well, it starts

In the first act, we're introduced to the Murray family, streamlined to only 2 kids instead of four, comprising genius NASA astrophysicist Mr. Murray, genius quantum physicist Mrs. Murray, tween Meg, and kindergarten prodigy Charles Wallace.  As the movie opens, Mr. Murray's been missing without a trace for 4 years, and we find his family in shambles.  Meg has rebelled to the point of delinquency, Charles Wallace has turned inward, and Mrs. Murray hasn't moved on from her husband's disappearance.

Into this walks Hagrid...er...I mean a flaming, frenetic redheaded Reese Witherspoon clothed in sheets named "Mrs Whatsit."  After thoroughly freaking-out the Murray's, she delivers that brilliant plop, "There is such a thing as a tesseract."  We then meet Mindy Kaling, in a surprising dramatic turn as Mrs Who, and finally a 60 foot tall beneficent Oprah Winfrey as Mrs. Which.

Along the way we meet Calvin, a boy from school in love with Meg, in that way only a 14 year old boy from literature can, chastely with a dash of Pygmalion complex.  You see, he things she's amazing.  She thinks she's a monster.

In a sense, all the above jives with the book, but the book does it so much faster.  The first act of this movie is painfully slow, with so many badly framed close-ups it borders on self-parody.  In particular, there's a shot with Principle Jenkins where his forehead cuts off out-of-frame.    

I'll give the screenwriters and DuVerne this much:  They at least adhere to "Show, don't tell."  We don't get narration, an opening scroll, or anything like that.  We're introduced to Principle Jenkins with a zoom shot from his desk nameplate over to his face.  Points for that, at least.

Then, it Stinks


The second act of the movie is spectacular, yet pointless.  Nothing happens, aside from incredibly expensive special effects, more closeups (eyes, in particular), and Oprah looking Oprah-like and delivering aphorisms like "You need to be one with the universe, then you'll see."

In honesty, I considered walking out of the movie at that point.  On the bright side, you'll have lots of moments where you can excuse yourself for a bathroom break.  You'll be missing nothing.

Then It Finds Itself

The last act on Camazotz almost salvages the whole overblown enterprise.  Things get seriously good--like Kubrick's The Shining good.  There's a famous scene from the book where kids are bouncing red balls all in rhythm, and it's perfect here.  Simply, perfect.  I felt the same as Charles Wallace, unnerved and desperate to not hear those poor, enthralled kids (demons?) bounce those balls.

Michael Pena plays against type as Red--the eponymous Red Eyed Man of the book--and he's fabulous, enthralling us along the way until we realize (just as the characters do) that it's too late.  What follows is a heartwarming reunion, a desperate choice, and a final showdown.

Just one thing:  The final showdown doesn't make sense. 

 I won't spoil the end, but ask yourself, "Does the hero have the emotional intelligence and self-awareness to make that choice?"

No, she doesn't.  She needed to learn something, something she learned in the book, that she couldn't for two three reasons:
  1. It's unfilmable. It happens in a place with no light, with creatures that lack eyes.
  2. That part of the book "stops" the book, in a very Zen way.  The first round on Camazotz is a mini-climax, and then the book pivots.  L'Engle punked us, and good for her!
  3. It would require introducing characters in the third act.  American films don't do that, and this movie is already two hours long.
So yeah, let's spend 20 minutes flying around Pandora from Avatar but let's leave off the part that makes the plot work.

Summary

In summary, there are some things to like, mostly around characters and performances.  Chris Pine's Mr. Murray is round, complex, and flawed, a welcome change from the mere sketch he is in L'Engle's book.  Charles Wallace alternates from sunshine to pure evil, and it's effective--a great performance from Deric McCabe.  Storm Reid delights as Meg, and when she's given sensible things to do, she shines.  As noted, the scenes on Camazotz affect a conformist hellscape of perfection and control, just how I'd imagined from the novel.


Downsides abound.  Editing towards spectacle leaves the film both too long and too short, leaving us bored for an hour, and confused at the end.  Oprah is just...there, relaying the same new-age, power-of-acceptance-and-positivity gospel, showing none of the chops she had in The Color Purple, for instance.  Mindy Kaling glows, but has little to do.

It's difficult to find an audience for this film.  Even at 'PG', it's too scary on Camazotz for little kids, and will bore teens and adults who've been through all this crap in their lives.  Tweens should love it, but tweens alone can't support a $100+ million budget.  Fantasy continues to underperform in the post LOTR and Harry Potter world, and A Wrinkle in Time will do nothing to reverse that trend.

I encourage you to grab the book and read it at a sitting as I did.  That's only 3 more hours' investment than this film, and trust me, the pictures in your head will be much better than those on this screen, leaf-dragon Reese Witherspoon notwithstanding.


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