In the seven years I’ve worked full time as a critic, it has become increasingly difficult to discuss certain movies simply as movies. Reviewing a superhero extravaganza set in the Marvel or DC Comics universe inevitably seems to raise questions about what it means that these franchises so dominate our mass culture and that so many fans appear to have made enthusiasm for them part of their identities. When something like “Wonder Woman” or “Black Panther” becomes not merely a cultural phenomenon, but is held up as a critically important indicator of the bankability of female or black action heroes worldwide, analyzing it often gets a critic sorted onto a political team, whether one claims that affiliation or not. And some directors become sufficiently important figures that it can feel as though commenting on their work is inseparable from commenting on the worthiness of their larger intellectual project.
I say this not to complain — after all, it’s my job to pick my way through these dilemmas — but rather to explain why this particular review is tangled up in what feels like a compulsory caveat. I don’t think Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time” is a very good movie. And given the emotional freight that has been loaded onto the movie, I feel like I have to note that I say that with a substantial amount of regret.
Any adaptation of “A Wrinkle in Time” would have been been moderately emotionally perilous: L’Engle’s fable about Meg Murry (Storm Reid), who travels across the universe with her brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) and her friend Calvin O’Keefe (Levi Miller) to save her missing father (Chris Pine), culminating with a showdown with an ultimate evil known as the It on the planet of Camazotz, has attained the status of a classic. Any book that has spurred so many imaginations — and “A Wrinkle in Time” depicts wonders that L’Engle often sketches in such a way that readers are invited to fill in the details in their own minds — is bound to invite some disappointment and controversy when it puts a definitive visual stamp on the author’s inventions.
In her version of “A Wrinkle in Time” (which was also adapted for television in 2003), DuVernay is not only giving form to characters like Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), who serve as guides to Meg, Charles Wallace and Calvin on the course of their journey. She’s expressing a vision of what Hollywood can be: multiracial in a way that’s matter-of-fact but not color-blind, attentive to feminine forms of strength as well as physical prowess and aggression, and shaped by influences including Maya Angelou, James Baldwin and Lin-Manuel Miranda.
The flaws in “A Wrinkle in Time” are not, for the most part, flaws in that vision of what big-budget studio movies can be. Instead, they’re often an indictment of Disney-fied moviemaking: This is a movie that constantly affirms its moderately unconventional heroine, but doesn’t show much trust in the young people sitting in the audience.
That lack of trust manifests in any number of ways. The script, by “Frozen” writer Jennifer Lee and “Bridge to Terabithia’s” Jeff Stockwell, is heavy on exposition. When the characters, particularly the Mrs. Ws, aren’t laying out information for Meg, Charles Wallace and Calvin, the soundtrack often fills in for them, telling us in blunt lyrics that conformity is bad, that a major scientific discovery is a magic moment and that bravery is good.
The production design and special effects may be geared toward spectacle, but they also consistently produce images and ideas that are easier to digest than the challenging world L’Engle created. The Mrs. Ws, who in the novel appear as an elderly woman mistaken for a tramp, a plump, bespectacled bookworm, and a disembodied being who once manifests as a black-hatted witch, have been recast here as gorgeous women in eccentric couture and runway-ready makeup. When Mrs. Whatsit sheds her human form, she turns into what I can only describe as a giant flying lettuce wrap, rather than a being so majestic that Calvin is tempted to worship her. The It is rendered as an abstracted set of neurons rather than a glistening, pulsing brain, and used to stage the sort of tiresome, weirdly weightless action sequence that has become a staple of big-budget movies.
And though there are some minor bits of brilliance, including casting “Scandal” star Bellamy Young as a terrifying housewife the children encounter on Camazotz, DuVernay generally tones down the nature of the It’s evil. It’s true, as A.O. Scott put it in his review of “A Wrinkle in Time,” that “the frustrations and injustices of youth can feel as vast as the cosmos.” But it still feels slightly anticlimactic to learn that Meg and her compatriots have traveled across time and space to stop the scourge of dieting, parental pressure about grades and intra-faculty jealousy at a middle school.
This is also an area where DuVernay’s desire to present an idealized multicultural world ends up minimizing the potential stakes. It’s a relief that Meg and Charles Wallace have to deal merely with personal unkindness rather than racism. But the It is rather less threatening if the main risk it poses to Earth is meanness rather than war and environmental degradation, as is the case in L’Engle’s original work.
“There are some things I need to say to my dad. Maybe now I can finally say them,” Calvin says near the end of the movie. “Funny how it took a trip around the universe to get me there.” That’s a testament to how daunting childhood and young adulthood can feel. But it’s a little bit of an indictment of “A Wrinkle in Time,” too.