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“A Wrinkle in Time” is preceded by a short intro featuring the film’s director, Ava DuVernay. It’s a rambling welcome, but something in it caught my attention. The movie is for 12-year-olds, she says, the 12-year-olds at heart. That term, 12 years old, kept repeating, over and over, like a broken record. As the film unspooled, it became clear why. Her intro was not a welcome, it was a warning: Adults need not apply.
Meg Murry (Storm Reid) is a deeply unhappy girl. Four years prior, her astrophysicist father Alex (Chris Pine), on the cusp of discovering a revolutionary method of interdimensional travel, disappeared without a trace. On the anniversary of his vanishing, Meg is visited by three astral travelers, Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), and Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling, and no, sadly, she’s not a doctor). They reveal to Meg that her father has been imprisoned by an evil entity known as The It (voiced by David Oyelowo). Able to fold time and space, the Mrs. Ws take Meg, along with her genius kid brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), and a chivalric friend from school, Calvin (Levi Miller), on a journey through the universe to save her father.
DuVernay is best known for the movies “Selma” and “13th,” a historical drama about Martin Luther King Jr. and a documentary about the intertwined nature of America’s prison system and racial inequality, respectively. She’s not the first person you’d think of to direct a kid’s fantasy film, which makes her an interesting choice to do so, and she does bring something different to the film. It has an eclectic and inclusive cast, and she does a good job with the tone, bringing a sense of joy to the proceedings, a positivity wholly lacking in cynicism.
But she doesn’t have the right touch for fantasy. CGI and foreign landscapes fill the screen, but none of it is transporting, none of it feels alive. And frankly, none of it’s very imaginative. The worlds they visit are all empty vistas, almost completely devoid of life. The reportedly $100 million plus budget isn’t taken advantage of and doesn’t show up on the screen.
And DuVernay shoots the movie in an odd way, framing much of it in maddeningly extreme close-ups. I think she does it for a reason, at least: it’s a way to get us close to the characters, literally and emotionally, a way to read them more easily. It’s different, especially for a special effects heavy film, but it’s anxiety inducing. Everything is just too close, and on an Imax screen, it’s not particularly flattering. I am now far too familiar with the inside workings of Oprah Winfrey’s nose than I am remotely comfortable with.
It doesn’t help that things happen in the film with little logic or explanation. True, not everything needs to be clarified. What exactly are the Ws and The It? Not important beyond good guys and bad. But some things do need to be explained, like motivation. Why does The It want Meg and her father, and what is its end goal? No clue.
It all feels random, as if the movie’s making things up as it goes along. The group transports to the first planet Meg’s father visited, tracing his steps. They talk to flowers (“They speak color,” apparently), then Mrs. Whatsit transforms into a giant flying leaf and they take to the air, cruise around a bit, lose one of the kids when they encounter The It in villainous cloud form, and have to scramble to save the falling child. It’s a nice enough sequence, mostly because of the (consistently) joyous score by Ramin Djawadi (“Game of Thrones”), and because the young actors really sell the moment. But when it’s over, it feels pointless. They take off and land in the exact same spot having learned little to nothing from the experience.
Without motivation and with things happening at random, my interest waned early on. And yet, I’m giving the movie a mild recommendation. The appealing cast uniformly gives the material their all, and there is a positivity and a message that, though filled with platitudes and clichés, is great for kids. And yes, we need more movies with a heroine of color at the center, one who uses her brain and knowledge of science to win the day.
So yes, “A Wrinkle in Time” is likable. But it’s just not very interesting. I wanted to care about what was happening in the film, but I didn’t. Sometimes, likable isn’t enough.