A Wrinkle in Time is a weird story. Though it appears to be your typical fantasy film aimed at kids, there is a lot more going on when it comes to the mythology and the motivations behind the movie. That unique quality is vital to making A Wrinkle in Time stand out from its peers.
And it’s frustrating when it doesn’t.
A Wrinkle in Time centers around a young girl, Meg Murry (Storm Reid), and her exceptionally intelligent younger brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe). It’s been four years since their scientist father (Chris Pine) went missing. But, when a bunch of bizarre women enter the Murrys’ lives, they discover that their father has traveled to other dimensions and is trapped.
That basic adventure premise is the framework for a film that’s secretly much stranger. Director Ava DuVernay allows for the story to take its time and that leads to some first act pacing that some audiences might find sluggish. In fact, it makes A Wrinkle in Time feel less bombastic. We get the sense that the movie really wants us to get into Meg’s head before all the wacky stuff goes down.
That’s great! It hints at the idea that A Wrinkle in Time isn’t going to sacrifice character development for showy thrills. And most importantly, it imparts a sense of sincerity that’s often lacking in hollow spectacle fantasy like Alice in Wonderland. That feeling of earnestness never leaves A Wrinkle in Time and it’s one of the film’s saving graces.
A Visual Hodgepodge
Beyond that, it starts to get complicated. The movie has been sold on its vibrant aesthetic and it’s here that the first big conflict rears its head. A Wrinkle in Time mixes genuinely striking and odd imagery with the kind of typical digital fantasy fare you see in most Disney live-action tentpole films. Granted, all of the visuals are well-crafted but the stylistic clashes create a jarring effect.
For example, the concept of tessering — traveling between dimensions — is visualized by Meg as flying through a void that’s filled with giant ribbons. It’s a cool idea that pays off extraordinarily well during the movie’s climax. Or, there’s a moment where the characters encounter a suburban neighborhood where all the children and parents act and say things in unison. These are less conventional ideas that add to the special fantasy flavor of A Wrinkle in Time.
But, you’ve also got scenes like the characters standing in a giant field and seeing colorful living flowers that could be a deleted scene out of Oz the Great and Powerful. There’s also the film’s shapeless antagonist called the IT. When we reach the big battle at the end of the film, it takes place inside of the IT and the setting is a disappointingly bland gnarl of boring tree roots. For every out there idea (Michael Pena shows up as a creepy marionette!), there is an equally boring bit to offset it (watch people run from a CG dust cloud).
That dissonance spreads into other aspects of the film as well. Storm Reid’s performance as Meg Murry is admirable and often hits home when it really matters, but then you’ve got poor Deric McCabe as Charles Wallace. It always feels bad critiquing child actors but his acting is more a fault of the character as written. Charles Wallace is supposed to be a genius and he spouts out flowery dialogue like a confident adult. That’s tough dialogue for any actor to tackle but it becomes far more apparent when a child does it.
Then, there’s Calvin (Levi Miller). Calvin is Meg’s schoolmate and clearly has a crush on her. He gets brought along on the adventure but there is literally no reason that he needs to be there. It’s a character that could have been cut from the story entirely in order to give even more focus on Meg.
Even the three magical women who bring our characters into the story — Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), Mrs. Whatsit (Resse Witherspoon), and Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) — can’t quite sync up. Oprah’s performance is expectedly maternal and warm but it’s a fairly boilerplate execution of a mentor character. Reese Witherspoon delivers the most outright quirkiness and fun as the playful Mrs. Whatsit. Mindy Kaling suffers the worst as she mostly speaks in quotations. Much like Charles Wallace, this is an inherent failing of the character as written. It’s tough to make that work.
Is A Wrinkle in Time Good?
With all that said, it’s still difficult to call A Wrinkle in Time a bad film. It’s a delightfully bizarre, visually beautiful, and deeply personal movie that feels trapped inside being a Disney tentpole film. When the weirdness of A Wrinkle in Time is unshackled, it works in striking and unconventional ways. Even its flaws feel like virtues when they are part of its unique flavor. It’s the need to hit certain blockbuster notes that keeps it from breaking out into something extraordinary.
In a way, it reminds me a lot of the Disney film Tomorrowland. Both films are highly fantastical adventures with clear-cut and well-intentioned messages aimed at their younger viewers. But, both movies get bogged down by their necessity to be Disney juggernauts. Something crucial gets sacrificed with that limitation.
Even so, there is a lot for young audiences to be inspired and enthralled by in A Wrinkle in Time. If that’s all that comes from the film, then it’s done its job.