Like its source material, A Wrinkle in Time gets better as it gets weirder and more surreal. Adapting Madeline L'Engle's 1962 novel of the same name (the first of five installments), screenwriters Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell stumble in their approach to the build-up to those surreal developments, condensing much of the novel into concepts that need to be explained more than they should be. If that phrase flies in the face of logic, do understand that much of this story, too, flies (sometimes literally) in the face of conventional storytelling. This is a movie that ultimately does not trust its audience to go with the flow.
At the same time, it is easy to celebrate the existence of such a movie in the current climate of family-friendly, fantasy-heavy entertainment. Director Ava DuVernay, in her first outing with a huge budget and lots of special effects, commits to the challenge of staging and executing scenes of grandiose visual ideas, and the design elements are often astounding. A scene in which one of the Immortals, beings with funny names who guide our young heroine on her journey, turns into a giant leaf and soars through the air is purely lovely, and the finale, which sees our heroine literally traveling through the space-time continuum to carry out a rescue, is occasionally thrilling.
Back on Earth, the film has trouble reaching lift-off. Dr. Alexander Murry (Chris Pine) has disappeared, following research into the kind of frequency that can allow a human to travel billions of light years in the snap of one's fingers, leaving his wife Kate (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) to tend to their children and grieve his absence. Daughter Meg (Storm Reid, an unaffected natural in her first major film role) struggles with his absence by acting out against the school bully Veronica (Rowan Blanchard) and letting her once-perfect grades drop. Son Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe, untested but up to the challenge of a difficult role) just continues being the once-in-a-blue-moon prodigy that he has proven to be at only six years old.
The adventure begins when Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), the Immortal who will eventually turn into the flying leaf, informs Meg of the cry into the dark heard by herself and the two other Immortals we meet. They, alongside Charles Wallace and Meg's smitten classmate Calvin (Levi Miller), unite with Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), whose tidbits of wisdom are borrowed from world leaders and philosophers, and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), whose control is more ultimate and less defined, to find Meg's father. The problem is that he seems to be in Camazotz, a place of total darkness known more commonly as the It, and the only way into such a place is dangerous for the human soul.
There is a lot of explicating the intentionally inexplicable here. DuVernay attempts to split the difference by allowing as much as she can to go unexplained, but explaining winds up being the only reason for the Immortals' existence. If the child actors are unaffected and Pine and Mbatha-Raw are good in limited roles as their parents, every supporting actor is awkward. Witherspoon, Winfrey, and especially Kaling all seem bizarrely miscast, limited by limiting roles, and so is Zach Galifianakis as the Happy Medium, another kind of Immortal who provides assistance in the quest and in Meg's broken heart (Better, oddly, is Michael Pena as Red, a scarlet-eyed demon who tricks the trio with food and respite).
One spends the duration of A Wrinkle in Time wanting to like it more than one does, and the climax is genuinely emotional and a little moving in the way it tidies everything up. It is, though, too little effort too late in the game to find the good will that had been lost by the preceding hour and a half in which, to their discredit, the filmmakers rushed through the introductions of every strange element of this story, not allowing the audience time to consider it on their terms before throwing another concept in the mix. The approach, of course, is admirable, but the execution is, as they say, lacking.
Storm Reid (Meg), Deric McCabe (Charles Wallace), Levi Miller (Calvin), Oprah Winfrey (Mrs. Which), Reese Witherspoon (Mrs. Whatsit), Mindy Kaling (Mrs. Who), Chris Pine (Alex), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Kate), Zach Galifianakis (The Happy Medium), Michael Pena (Red), Andre Holland (Jenkins), Rowan Blanchard (Veronica).
Directed by Ava DuVernay and written by Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell, based on the novel by Madeline L'Engle.
Rated PG (thematic elements, peril).
Released on March 9, 2018.