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By Noel Vera

Movie Review
A Wrinkle in Time
Directed by Ava DuVernay

WORD IS OUT: Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s classic piece of children’s literature A Wrinkle in Time has provoked critically mixed reviews, has reportedly underperformed at the box office. The Disney magic, so spectacularly validated with Ryan Coogler’s critically and commercially beloved Black Panther seems with this production to have stumbled, big-time.

The movie itself? Well…

DuVernay starts out by focusing on the family trauma that has stricken the Murrys — father Alex’s (Chris Pine) unexplained disappearance, eldest daughter Meg’s (Storm Reid) resulting state of alienation and pain. Meg has become standoffish and fellow schoolmates have abandoned her; some (particularly Veronica, played by Rowan Blanchard) have reacted with hostile remarks about a straying father. We feel for Meg; we’re enchanted with Storm Reid’s unconventionally fresh looks, expressiveness, vulnerability. We’re ready to follow her to whatever strange worlds she may stumble upon, any bizarre adventures she may undertake on her quest for her missing dad.

What we get instead is Reese Witherspoon at her Legally Clueless brightest, decked out in a billowy white dress (she looks like she’s about to tack into the wind) and tangerine fishtail braids. Witherspoon plays Ms. Whatsit, a next-door neighbor enjoying uncanny rapport with Meg’s younger brother Charles Wallace Murry (Deric McCabe); she’s joined by a Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) sporting a yearlong crochet project and speaking Brainyquote, and by a Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey) 20-feet tall with spangled eyebrows, wearing a Mack radiator grill. What Who Which explain to Meg that her father wasn’t crazy after all but had discovered a tesseract, and with this four-dimensional (five in the book) mathematical concept has managed to lose himself somewhere out in the universe.

Before you can say “Kansas!” Meg, pretty-boy admirer Calvin (Levi Miller), and Charles Wallace hie off to the utopian planet Uriel, which bears an uncanny resemblance to the utopian land of Wakanda except with a more temperate clime (hard to explain beyond the thought that DuVernay and Coogler — and come to think of it Gunn and Whedon and the brothers Russo before them — haven’t strayed much from Disney’s house repertory of bright family friendly epically dull digital effects*).

And we’re off and running, with a plot involving a dark amorphously evil It (basically Peter Jackson’s Sauron only with smoke instead of fire pouring out), a Happy Medium (Zach Galifianakis balancing his career at one end of a seesawing stone), and a Man with Red Eyes (Michael Peña sporting the world’s most painful-looking pair of contact lens burns).

Not a big fan of DuVernay’s previous work (Selma, 2015) but to be fair the filmmaker doesn’t hide her sympathies, which are clearly with the Murrys: Meg, Charles Wallace, mother Kate (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), and even MIA father Alex are given their moments of longing for each others’ presence: the sense of family is arguably the strongest unalloyed achievement of the picture. DuVernay even grants the other youths their little epiphanies (turns out Veronica teases Meg for personal reasons and Calvin, who is outwardly popular at school, inwardly needs a serious self-image makeover).

To highlight that sense of family and community however, you need the contrast of an equally strong antagonist, and (skip the rest of the paragraph if you plan to see the movie!) diesel fumes gathering in a sapphire blue sky don’t do much for me nowadays, no matter how noxious-looking they may be. Peña’s Red Eyes offer a moment of mild shock when first glimpsed but he’s barely sketched in as a presence, much less a character; it’s telling that when he no longer has a function in the plot he’s dropped like an unwanted marionette. Charles Wallace’s genius-turned-monster child is the movie’s most memorable villain by default — we know him from earlier scenes, we like his light charm; when he turns bad we squirm at the ruthlessness with which he wields his knowledge of Meg’s most intimate faults and fears to his advantage.

Alas not enough — or rather, was enough till DuVernay decided to retell The Neverending Story with production design by Hobby Lobby. I keep thinking of filmmakers who’ve done this sort of thing better on a smaller budget — Terry Gilliam with Time Bandits (his child hero was barely a character at all, but you watched the mind-bending effects); Tim Burton with Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (again, barely a narrative or character but the visual wit is palpable [and nondigital]). Did they have their bizarre details, their off moments that really shouldn’t work? No worry; a spry sense of humor transforms said detail into part of the movie’s wayward appeal, a bit of prestidigitation DuVernay seems unable to bring off.

Wrinkle’s story — haven’t read the book myself — seems more compelling than any of the aforementioned examples: family must wander time and space before it can bring itself back together. But DuVernay, while careful to get her family just right, seems to have ceded control of the various worlds over to the Rat Factory, whose corporate “creativity” flattens the sense of wonder in this — or just about any — fantasy picture.

*(Though to be fair Gunn did embrace said effects’ inherent cheesiness, and let his inner disco shine.)

MTRCB Rating: G