Reviewed by GREG KING
Director Ava DuVernay
Stars: Storm Reid, Levi Miller, Reese Witherspoon, Oprah Winfrey, Mindy Kaling, Chris Pine, Zach Galifianakis, Michael Pena, Deric McCabe, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Andrew Holland, Rowan Blanchard, David Oyelowo, Daniel MacPherson, Tim Kang.
Madeleine L’Engle’s popular 1962 YA fantasy novel A Wrinkle In Time has long been considered difficult to adapt to the screen. There was a four-hour television miniseries made for Canadian tv in 2004 which featured some shoddy special effects and ordinary performances. This version has been written by Jeff Stockwell (another YA adaptation with The Bridge To Terabithia, etc) and Jennifer Lee (best known for her work on the popular animated film Frozen, etc), but the screenplay is rather dull and plodding and lacks cohesion as the writers seem to have trouble coming to grips with its complex nature and big themes. This big screen version has been produced by the Disney organisation, and they have thrown $150 million at the production. However, the end result is a confused, dull special effects heavy mess that may appeal to fans of the novel but will leave most in the audience scratching their heads.
Meg Murry (Storm Reid, from 12 Years A Slave, The Summoning, etc) is an intelligent but troubled 13-year old science geek who has become distracted since her astrophysicist father (Star Trek’s Chris Pine) mysteriously disappeared four years ago. He believed in the concept of being able to use the power of the mind to travel vast distances, a concept that saw his ridiculed in scientific circles. And Meg has been mercilessly bullied at school which leads to her being in trouble.
Then one night her annoying young brother Charlie (newcomer Deric McCabe) invites a strange woman into their house, and suddenly everything changes for Meg. The garishly dressed and seemingly ditzy Mrs Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) talks about integrated travel and tesseracts, and hints that their father is still alive. Soon Meg, Charlie and her classmate and potential boyfriend Calvin (Australian actor Levi Miller, from Red Dog: True Blue, etc) embark on a strange and unbelievable quest.
They visit the ramshackle hut of the eccentric Mrs Who (Mindy Kaling, from Inside Out, tv’s The Mindy Project, etc) who speaks in nonsensical platitudes and quotes authors. And then there is the gigantic Mrs Which (Oprah Winfrey) who seems to be the all-encompassing leader of the three women. The three women appear in Meg’s backyard and reveal themselves to be travellers able to move through time and dimensions with ease through a process called “tessering”.
Before long, Meg, Calvin and Charlie are tessering their way through the universe in search of her father. Along the way they visit some strange, colourful worlds and meet characters like the weird Happy Medium (Zach Galifianakis). And then Charlie seems to become possessed by an evil entity known only as the It (voiced by David Oyelowo), whose main purpose seems to test the trio.
A Wrinkle In Time has been directed by Ava DuVernay, who gave us the powerful civil rights drama Selma in 2014. In something of a breakthrough for Hollywood, she has now become the first African-American woman to direct a major $100 million live action production. However, her direction of this special effects driven film and its use of green screen and CGI seems a little uncertain and tentative. This ambitious mix of high concept sci-fi, teen romance, fantasy and mysticism, religious and philosophical adventure is unnecessarily convoluted and misses the mark. The film carries some important empowering messages about acceptance, individuality and courage, but misses the mark emotionally.
The VFX are poor and disappointing, especially considering the vast budget Disney has thrown at the project. Some of the various worlds lack inspiration or life, and although they are colourful they add little overall. Some of the visuals from cinematographer Tobias Schliessler (Beauty And The Beast, etc) resemble Alice In Wonderland via What Dreams May Come. The colourful costumes worn by the three guardian angels look like they have been assembled from the left-overs of a second-hand store jumble sale.
The performances are also something of a mixed bag. Reid makes the most of her biggest role to date, and brings an intelligence, emotional heft and feisty quality to her performance, but she also suffuses Meg with a hint of insecurity and self-doubt. Miller is strong and delivers a nuanced performance as the loyal Calvin, but he sometimes seems a little lost amidst the barrage of special effects and green screen work. Newcomer McCabe is plain annoying and insufferable as Charlie, and his performance is embarrassingly bad. Kaling is wasted and given little to do, while Winfrey’s performance similarly lacks gravitas. Only Witherspoon seems to recognise that she is in a fantasy and her light-hearted performance captures the tone of the film – especially when she transforms into a giant flying cabbage leaf. Gugu Mbatha-Raw does what she can in a small role Meg’s mother. And Michael Pena, also clad in a garish costume, brings some humour to his performance as Red, a character about which we learn little.
Fans of the source novel may find something to appreciate with this lavish and ambitious adaptation, but those unfamiliar with the book may find all this universe hopping something of a dull and underwhelming experience.