Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of “A Wrinkle in Time” arrives with more than its share of hype, generated by fans dedicated to Madeleine L’Engle’s 1962 children’s book as well as by DuVernay’s distinction as the first African American woman to direct a movie with a $100 million budget.
At a recent screening, the filmmaker herself seemed eager to manage expectations. In a taped prologue, DuVernay urged filmgoers to watch the movie while in touch with their “inner child,” a useful piece of advice for a movie that turns out to be a kids’ film, for better and for worse. “A Wrinkle in Time” may not be an epic game-changer on par with “Wonder Woman” and “Black Panther,” to which it has already been unfairly compared. Yet this pleasing if modest fantasy adventure possesses all the strengths and weaknesses of its source material, with DuVernay’s sensibility suffusing the enterprise with a timely sense of urgency and relevance.
Perhaps DuVernay’s most canny move lies in her casting, which involves some familiar faces reframed in fantastical dimensions, as well as marvelous discoveries. Storm Reid plays Meg Murry, the 14-year-old misfit who’s been in a perpetual bad mood since her physicist father, Alex (Chris Pine), disappeared four years ago. Living in her cozy Compton home with her scientist mother, Kate (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), and 5-year-old brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), Meg isn’t nearly as comfortable at school, where she’s chronically bullied by the resident mean girls.
Things change when a mysterious woman named Mrs. Whatsit visits on a dark and stormy night, setting Meg, Charles Wallace and Meg’s school friend Calvin (Levi Miller) on a search for Alex that will take them to the furthest reaches of the universe. Aided by Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which, Meg gets in touch with her powers, culminating in nothing less than a fight between good and evil.
Delivering a sturdy, self-possessed performance as “A Wrinkle in Time’s” heroine, Reid proves a thoroughly capable leading lady, her slightly nerdish appeal something of a twin to Letitia Wright’s precocious young scientist in “Black Panther.” (Let’s hear it for Girls Who Code.) If the original character’s rough edges have been over-sanded here, Reid is still convincing as a girl who’s angry and grieving over the loss of a pivotal figure in her life, both defiant and afraid of putting a foot wrong.
McCabe, for his part, plays the preternaturally confident Charles Wallace with scene-stealing glee, his little-man maturity modulating into something far more troubling as Meg’s journey grows more perilous. If Miller has less material to work with as Calvin, he gracefully cedes the limelight to the brother-sister act. All three young people more than hold their own when they’re being towered over — literally — by the three Mrs. W’s, portrayed by Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling and Oprah Winfrey, respectively.
Decked out in magnificent wigs and gowns, their lips and eyes bedazzled with metallic makeup sure to launch a thousand YouTube tutorials, Witherspoon, Kaling and Winfrey show up and disappear with sometimes perfunctory suddenness. (Like Calvin, they’re also stranded with little to do except, literally, stand there and slay in a procession of otherworldly looks.) “A Wrinkle in Time” is plagued by the same convoluted leaps and hurried lack of logic that Washington Post critic Michael Dirda recently pointed out in L’Engle’s original book. At a time when movies are almost uniformly too long, this is one film that could have benefited from a few more scenes to plump up Meg’s backstory, solidify the emotional stakes and smooth out transitions that are jagged at best, nonsensical at worst.
Still, with its bright color palette, appealing lead players and moments of comic relief — Zach Galifianakis shows up to play a rather anxious Happy Medium — “A Wrinkle in Time” is often beautiful to watch. (Sequences amid the Skittles-hued conformity of the planet Camazotz are particularly well staged.) And DuVernay injects subtle cues that remind viewers of the story’s revolutionary potential that was so incendiary 50 years ago that some institutions once banned the book. There’s a lovely shot, early in the movie, when Charles Wallace waits in the principal’s office, his posture echoed by James Baldwin in a photo hanging on the wall. In L’Engle’s original telling, Mrs. Who quoted the likes of Shakespeare, Dante and Euripides; DuVernay adds epigrams from Rumi, Outkast and Lin-Manuel Miranda. As a clarion call for young people rising up against the forces of cynicism, corruption and wanton cruelty, “A Wrinkle in Time” feels decidedly of-the-moment, a primer for the little brothers and sisters of the #NeverAgain generation. Even without every flaw completely ironed out, it offers values worth celebrating across the time-space continuum.
PG. At area theaters. Contains mature thematic elements and some peril. 115 minutes.