My favorite children’s films growing up were always a little weird. I loved movies like Labyrinth or The Neverending Story that took awkward, smart kids out of their normal lives and into strange new universes with uncertain rules and surprising, colorful characters. Fantasy does the necessary work of reminding us that what’s in front of us isn’t all there is, and that sometimes discovering new possibilities is as easy as changing your perspective.
That same sentiment drives A Wrinkle in Time, director Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s classic children’s novel. It swims in the same cult following pool as other classic family-friendly movies. However, the movie shoots for the shallower end of that pool, which, given its rich source material, talented director, and stellar, diverse cast, makes it something of a letdown.
In the film, as in the book, Meg Murry (Storm Reid) and her precocious brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) are struggling socially and academically after the disappearance of their father (Chris Pine), a brilliant scientist. They’re teased at school and misunderstood by their teachers. One night, a stranger, Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) comes to the family’s door with news: Their father is alive, and has uncovered a new way of traveling between worlds, called a “tesseract.” Meg, Charles Wallace, and their friend Calvin (Levi Miller) set out to find Dr. Murry and in the process stop a malevolent dark force called The It, with the help of Mrs. Whatsit and her celestial sisters, Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey).
A Wrinkle in Time is bright and colorful, not only applying broad imagination to its settings and costumes, but also daring to extend that same concept to its diverse cast. In addition to the multiracial identities of the three Mrs., Meg is biracial and the adopted Charles Wallace is Asian. These choices clearly come from a very personal place for DuVernay, and it’s lovely to see that diversity communicated with earnestness and intention. A large part of the film’s message is self-awareness and self-love, and it’s important that this message comes to audiences through the experience of a young girl of color, addressing universal pre-teen feelings of awkwardness or self esteem issues through a character who relates to more than just a white audience.
The problem with the film is that much of it feels surface-level. The story never stops long enough in one place to establish even a cursory set of rules for the worlds it builds, and the characters we meet aren’t developed to the extent they could be. It also often feels as though plot points are just happening for the sake of it, with no sense of logic or causation. The amount a person enjoys A Wrinkle in Time depends largely on their ability to just go with the flow. If you can do that, the film becomes an enjoyable ride.
That surface-level approach also weakens the movie’s messaging (for more details on this, check out Alissa Wilkinson’s article on the film on Vox). The film drops the book’s Christian references and deeply philosophical themes on good, evil, and conformity for ideas that are still positive, but more vaguely spiritual. There are truths here, and the central message about not giving into fear and appreciating your differences is valuable, but they tend to come off as platitudes rather than something more substantive.
A Wrinkle in Time may not be as strong as it could be, but it is well-intentioned, admirably earnest, and gloriously weird in ways that can still connect with audiences. It’s not quite the groundbreaking masterpiece it was set up to be, but it’s an interesting experiment, and still a good step in the right direction. It never goes to the depths it should, but the surface is still pretty interesting.