The challenge of adapting Madeleine L’Engle’s 1962 sci-fi fantasy novel A Wrinkle In Time has to be daunting for any filmmaker. Apparently beloved by American readers since its release, the story’s complex entanglement of quantum physics and Christian spirituality doesn’t lend itself to the kind of big-budget blockbuster you would need to make to convey its intergalactic scope. But blimey, director Ava DuVernay has a solid go at it anyway, in Disney’s latest live-action fantasy offering.
On the scale of Disney’s literary adaptations, it falls somewhere between two other movies – 2005’s The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe, a faithful spin on C.S. Lewis’ Narnia that got a warm response, and 2012’s John Carter, a box office underperformer that struggled with the source material’s influence on other, more popular properties that leap-frogged it to the big screen – but notably, feels utterly distinct from either of them. This remains faithful to the novel’s themes and tone, while also modernising it.
The story begins four years after the disappearance of theoretical physicist Alexander Murry (Chris Pine), whose theories on instant interdimensional travel are ridiculed by the scientific community. Understandably, his daughter Meg (Storm Reid) isn’t especially cheerful about this, despite the best efforts of her prodigious adopted brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), and she struggles with bullies and low self-esteem.
As it turns out, even the intervention of three celestial beings called Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey) isn’t automatically enough to bring her out of her shell. But when Meg learns her father has successfully teleported across the universe but became stranded in darkness by a malevolent entity known as the IT, she embarks upon a rescue mission across the universe with her classmate Calvin (Levi Miller) and Charles Wallace in tow.
The story is as simple as that, and while the actual plotting is more complicated, Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell’s adaptation is eased by some canny updates, trading the explicitly Christian themes for a more universally appealing quest for self-actualisation. Moreover, DuVernay follows the Harry Potter movies’ template of keeping focus on the young child stars, particularly on Reid, with the more established and experienced stars in supporting roles.
The film can always rely on Reid, who is the most valuable player by some distance. As Meg, she has to be scared and sceptical, insecure and blazingly intelligent by turns, and she’s perfect as the constant in this particular experiment. The only trouble is that she’s good enough that it feels as if the film could have gone further – we’d root for her through a much more surreal adventure than we get from this classroom experiment, in which the kids will learn something but the adults in the room will usually know how it’s going to pan out.
While the result is a sprawling adventure, the film clearly delineates its three act structure by the planets on which they’re set – everyday life on Earth, the idyllic wonder of Uriel and the emotionally treacherous terrain of Camazotz. The production design is distinctive across these three settings, and particularly eclectic in the dark realm of the third act, but its big heart and open mind are more or less consistent across its running time.
It’s better considered on its own merits than as a landmark, which is not to undersell that status, of which many reviews have seemed painfully aware. DuVernay seems to know it too, but her film never feels self-important. In the same way as the original novel has been criticised in some quarters over the last 50 years for equating great philosophers and scientists with Jesus, so the film cheekily puts its own spin on this by putting the wise words of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Outkast alongside those of William Shakespeare and Buddha.
Even when the emotional exposition and the floaty visual effects sometimes undercut the dramatic heft of it all, there’s a winning air of self-assurance about this that gives both Meg and the target audience something to which they can aspire.
Quite aside from how on point the diversity is in the face of a villain that wants to make everyone and everything just like itself (the main point of distinction between this IT and Stephen King’s), it yields an extremely watchable ensemble. From the unusual trio of Winfrey, Witherspoon and Kaling and loving parents Pine and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, to the small roles for Zach Galifianakis and Michael Peña, there’s a wide range of characters bouncing off one another to entertaining effect.
Up until the third act, the visual splendour feels ungrounded, but it remains entertaining to watch everyone at work. And even with all of that older talent on hand, the film still has the courage of its convictions in its climactic gambit, which lies solely on the strength of Reid and McCabe. The film might not all come together elsewhere, but this main big swing really connects when it counts.
Though flawed, A Wrinkle In Time is a winsome spectacle that feels emotionally grounded even when there’s a significant lack of dramatic heft. Starting from the notion that a straight line is not the shortest distance between two points, the beaten path it treads is still fabulously waggly and marked by striking visuals and enjoyable performances all round.
A Wrinkle In Time is in UK cinemas now.