When we talk about a movie like A Wrinkle in Time, it’s impossible to separate it from the context of its creation, or from its history and place in the cultural conversation. The Disney adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s bestselling children’s science fiction novel is the first movie ever with a budget over $100 million to be directed by a black woman; it is easily one of the most diverse studio movies of a year; and it is being released into a world where to be different is to be in danger.
In any context, A Wrinkle in Time is an empowering children’s film (and it very much is committed to being a children’s film) with weird, wonderful visuals quite unique from anything we’ve seen in family films before. In this context, however, A Wrinkle in Time is a cinematic light in the darkness, a mythological statement from the biggest studio in the world, by way of Selma director Ava DuVernay, about how we all have value and deserve to be loved. Within the film, this message plays out in the journey to self-acceptance for one awkward adolescent named Meg Murry (Storm Reid), but on a meta level, it plays out in all of the kids and adults around the world who are seeing people who look like them in one of the biggest movies of the year.
For those who are unfamiliar with the Wrinkle in Time story, originally published in 1962, it follows 13-year-old Meg Murry as she heads into the cosmos in search of her missing scientist father (Dr. Alex Murry, played by Chris Pine). In the book, Meg is a white girl from Connecticut. Here, she is a brown-skinned girl from California. While screenwriter Jennifer Lee (Frozen) may have changed some of the details of the novel—including, most notably, the erasure of Meg’s older twin brothers—the bones of this story are very much the same.
When Meg’s wunderkind younger brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), introduces his sister to a trio of other-worldly beings—Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), and Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling)—Meg wants nothing to do with them until they mention her missing father. The group, along with Meg’s classmate Calvin (Levi Miller) travel through space and time to not only to save Dr. Murry, but the entire universe from an entity known only as The It.
Much of the first half of this film is spent with a reluctant Meg getting to know the ancient ethereal all-star beings played by Winfrey, Witherspoon, and Kaling, as they use tesseracts, i.e. wrinkles in time, to travel across space-time. Visually, their trips to new planets like garden oasis Uriel or the planet of hippy soothsayer Happy Medium (Zach Galifianakis) are mesmerizing. DuVernay has spoken before about how we, as a culture, have limited examples of what big budget, live-action fantasy/science fiction made by a woman (let alone a black woman) really look like, and this novelty is imbued into everything from the production design to the costumes, to the visual effects of this film.
Nowhere is this more striking than in the presentation of its biggest stars, whose inherent other-wordliness allows for the pushing of aesthetic limits while also staying grounded in the realness of these women. Winfrey wears rhinestones as eyebrows, Witherspoon a dress made of cloud-like billows, and Kaling a blue rectangle painted onto her forehead. However, that same grounded strangeness can work at cross-purposes with the world of the film. When Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which are onscreen, it’s hard not to see Winfrey, Kaling, and Witherspoon in the archetypal hollowness of their characters. DuVernay wanted icons in these roles, and that’s what she got—even if we lose a degree of escapism in the process.
A Wrinkle in Time‘s unabashed girliness extends past the presentation of The Mrs. At one point, a swarm of flowers rescues a character from falling to their death. In another scene, Meg takes the time to put up her hair before moving into the next phase of what could be an action-heavy adventure. In the climactic scene, which has been spoiled somewhat by the trailers, Meg’s face is showered in glitter. This movie is filled with pinks and purples and so, so much glitter.
The film really finds its feet once the Mrs. are out of the picture, and Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin are on their own on the planet of Camazotz, a suburban hellscape where conformity is a must and The It rules all. Reid and McCabe in particular steal the show as they struggle to maintain both their sibling relationship and their sense of selves against the overwhelming power of The It.
There are elements of A Wrinkle in Time that fall flat. Witherspoon’s Mrs. Whatsit is unnecessarily cruel to Meg. Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Dr. Kate Murry is underdeveloped—a mother-scientist figure who was a landmark character in the book, but who doesn’t get enough to do here. The first half is much longer than the second, with an awkward pacing that makes for stilted moments between the characters. For some, Pine’s paternal character may come across as callous or even flat, but this seems more the result of watching a movie that decentralizes the white, male protagonist than it does any flaw of the film or performance.
Fortunately, A Wrinkle in Time gets wildly right its most important aspect: Meg Murry. When this movie starts, Meg is a kid filled with some very justifiable anger about the world around her after being told repeatedly by the people in her life to get over it: Get over the absence of her father, get over the bullying of her mean girl classmate, get over the injustices of the world. In other words, take up less space—emotionally, physically, narratively. It’s something girls are taught very young, and often never unlearn.
Meg’s revelation is that she deserves to be loved; she deserves to be valued. This might seem like a small thing to those people and/or demographics that have been offered value freely for their entire lives. But for anyone who has ever been told, for whatever hateful reasons, that they aren’t enough, that their worth is dependent upon someone else’s valuation of it, Meg’s journey is nothing short of revolutionary.
As a family film geared towards kids and young adults, A Wrinkle in Time has an emphasis on the emotionality of teenagehood in ways that aren’t usually seen in live-action, big budget genre fare. Meg is a kid who is in immense pain and this is as much a coming-of-age parable as it is a science fiction adventure, perhaps more so. Ostensibly, this movie is about Meg’s search for her father, but really it is about her search for herself.
If you think this movie is about saving the world, you would be right, but this movie isn’t playing by superhero rules. The antagonist here is occasionally externalized, but, for the most part, The It is a uncommonly intangible villain, and in a way that some viewers might find anti-climactic or vague. But sometimes saving the world is about loving someone enough to be unapologetically, unabashedly honest about it. Sometimes it’s about loving yourself in that same way. Today’s kids could use more movies like A Wrinkle in Time. So could today’s adults.