Adapting a trippy children’s book from the sixties is no picnic and Disney have already cocked up Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time before now in 2003. What’s impressive about Ava DuVernay’s bigger budget take on the tale is how the Selma director makes it her own and uses it as a vehicle to communicate to an underserved audience with emotional intelligence. Sadly, it is the less impressive script and oversaturated visuals that wrinkle in the mind.
Though firmly rooted in the American syllabus, A Wrinkle in Time isn’t well known in the UK, where audiences won’t appreciate just how monumentally un-film-able the book is. To this end, any coherent stab at adaptation is to be commended. The story follows the quest of Meg Murry (newcomer Storm Reid), along with her child-genius brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) and could-be boyfriend Calvin (Levi Miller), to find her four-years missing father, Dr Alex Murry (amiably played by Chris Pine). Before he disappeared, Dr Murry had been studying the possibility of travelling across the Universe by tessering through wrinkles in the space-time continuum with his wife – Meg’s Mum – Dr Kate Murry (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).
Four years on, most think that Alex went mad and ran off; even his family are giving up. There is, however, always hope in fantasy films and sure enough the mysterious Mrs. Whatsit (Reece Witherspoon) is soon on hand to reveal that ‘there is such a thing as a tesseract’. Colourful and ditsy, Mrs. Whatsit is one of three celestial beings who have been summoned to Earth in the battle against ‘the IT’ aka the darkness in a light world.
There are, it must be said, many positive qualities driving A Wrinkle in Time. A likeable cast power characters that are worth rooting for, whilst DuVernay has a nice eye for vibrant sequences and mobile camerawork. Warmth is abundant here too, with a central message about accepting yourself for the wonderful individual you are. It’s also pleasing to find diversity and gender equality in the realms of science fiction cinema.
Perhaps it’s the presence of these qualities that make the film quite so frustrating. More likely, it’s the ear-scraping script by Jennifer Lee – in a live-action debut – and Jeff Stockwell, aggressively ‘luminous’ cinematography and bizarre misuse of music.
Take the sequence towards the start of the film where Kahlani’s Let Me Live is randomly dumped over shots of Meg at school. We cut to Charles Wallace, overhearing a conversation between two teachers – who have no reason to be there and work with completely different age groups in the school – about his family. It’s a scene that plays like some lazy reshoot material, designed to clarify details of exposition to confused test-screen audiences. ‘They seemed so happy and Meg used to be so engaged and now she’s a mess,’ says one. ‘But the boy is brilliant,’ says the other. This is the sort of film when we are then introduced to the school’s principal by a focus shot of his nameplate, before he basically repeats the conversation that we’ve just had to endure.
As for the look of the film, A Wrinkle in Time seems to demand that critics proclaim it ‘visually stunning’ when it’s actually just overcooked. One instance of transformation is lovely, until it becomes clear that Reece Witherspoon has just turned into a giant, flying cabbage.