Ava DuVernay's "A Wrinkle in Time" is a landmark film even before it hits the theaters. The adaptation of Madeleine L'Engle's eerie, mystical young adult sci-fi novel from 1962 was budgeted at over $100 million, the largest budget a woman of color has been handed for a film. DuVernay is only the fourth female director to receive that kind of budget for a project, and in tackling the beloved "A Wrinkle in Time," she has taken an enormous swing. That alone is worthy of recognition.
DuVernay marshalled an array of star power to inhabit L'Engle's tale, with Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling stepping into the roles of the Misses; supernatural, deity-like beings who guide the young Meg (Storm Reid) on her journey through space and time. It's almost laughably appropriate casting for Winfrey, who embodies the wise, godlike presence Mrs. Which.
Underneath the sci-fi and fantasy elements of both the book and film of "A Wrinkle in Time," the story is quite simple: a young girl sets out to find her missing father (Chris Pine). She may travel through fantastical worlds of space and time, guided by mystical forces, but ultimately, this is a story about reuniting a family.
Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell have adapted what has been considered an "unfilmable" book, and keeping the story simple, and earnest, is the necessary foundation for the fantastical set pieces that DuVernay crafts. Meg, her precocious younger brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), and their friend Calvin (Levi Miller) travel through space and time, from verdant and vibrant planets to the dark, reality-bending space of Camazotz, where her father is believed to be stranded.
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DuVernay shoots for the stars with a highly stylized look and energy to the film that's both visionary and referential. It's very much akin a children's fantasy adventure film from the '80s or '90s – the quirky Misses, especially Witherspoon's Mrs. Whatsit, are clearly indebted to Zelda Rubinstein's performances from "Teen Witch" and "Poltergeist." In certain moments, it feels a lot like "The NeverEnding Story," in others, it's closer to the oddball Robin Williams vehicle "Toys."
When "Wrinkle" is firing on all cylinders, it's a transporting adventure that brings you back to the imaginative adventure of childhood, when the stakes were clear, and always high. The goals are straightforward, and the film wears its heart plainly on its sleeve. It's not often that we see purely straightforward films that are simply about vanquishing darkness with the light from within us. That's exactly what "Wrinkle" is about, and it never hides or nuances that message.
But there are times when the film doesn't quite flow. The tone and style is often herky jerky and affected, especially with the Misses. The edit isn't smooth and lulling – instead it skitters and yanks, often to alert us to shifts in the film's reality, but it's jarring and uncomfortable. Some of the more action-packed moments devolve into a jumble of grayish CGI, losing all of the carefully honed world-building. Even worse, the relationship between Calvin and Meg is uncomfortably romantic and distracting.
DuVernay has set out to make an ambitious fantasy epic, and in many ways, she succeeds. Pine is wonderful as the reckless but inspirational dad Dr. Murry, and McCabe is a breakout star, stealing the film from his co-stars as the odd little brother. Many moments are beautiful and surreal, while others are just plain weird (and not always in a good way). If it doesn't always work, well, at least DuVernay went for it, and her version of "A Wrinkle in Time" is just as gorgeous and strange as can be expected.
'A WRINKLE IN TIME'
Cast: Storm Reid, Chris Pine, Deric McCabe, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Levi Miller, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Oprah Winfrey
Directed by Ava DuVernay
Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes
Rated PG for thematic elements and some peril.