Hyped up to 12 on the “Black Panther” anticipation scale and as high-minded as “A Very Special ‘Oprah,'” “A Wrinkle in Time” arrives in theaters as an exquisite waxwork rendition of Madeleine L’Engle‘s Newbery Medal-winning novel.
It’s lovely to look at — occasionally. And director Ava DuVernay lets the camera linger over those gossamer effects — as if the natural beauty of New Zealand could be improved by digital crescent moons and fantastical additions to the Hobbitscapes. She also dwells on the circus aerialist makeup of her version of L’Engles “Three Witches” (“Three Mrs.”), the startlingly dolled-up Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling and queen of them all, Oprah, as if they’re special effects unto themselves.
The child actors cast are just as gorgeous as the children of a coupling of Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Chris Pine would be.
And the story? A lost father chased through the cosmos by his intrepid daughter (Storm Reid), “brilliant” son (Deric McCabe) and the classmate who’s sweet on the daughter (Levi Miller) holds promise, if not actual excitement, suspense, coherence or narrative drive.
Which is a big build-up to essentially saying, “This movie’s a stiff — ‘Still Life with Oprah.'”
Mbatha-Raw and Pine are married scientists who have discovered an interstellar Tesseract, a fifth dimension which connects places and people throughout the universe. Their peers have laughed, but NASA researcher dad disappeared years ago into it.
And his smart and intrepid daughter Meg (Reid) and too-clever-chatterbox son Charles Wallace (McCabe) pay the price for his absence — bullied at school, gossiped about by teachers.
Until Charles Wallace invites this Bjork-attired weirdo (Witherspoon) in for a visit. She’s “Mrs. Whatsit,” she insists. The boy is a genius, she declares. The girl, even if she clings to Dad’s “Love is always there, even if you don’t feel it” credo, is more troubled. Whatsit can help. But not on her own. She summons her sisters in galactic stewardship.
Mrs. Who (Kaling) is given to quoting the wisdom of the ages — “‘The feet feels the foot when if feels the ground,’ Buddha.” She’s a veritable inspirational calendar of aphorisms — “Loves sees not with the eyes, but with the mind,’ Shakespeare!”
Mrs. Which (Winfrey) lords over them all, warns of “the darkness” spreading over the universe and onto Earth and directs their journey.
Whatsit? “Wild nights are my glory!”
They somewhat aimlessly and cryptically point the kids in the direction Dad went, seeking help from The Happy Medium (Zach Galifianakis, blessed comic relief) and an intergalactic dream merchant (Michael Peña, dolled up like Rip Taylor selling ice cream on the beach).
All the while, this more or less threatening ink blotch of “darkness” spreads.
DuVernay (“Selma”) fails utterly in her search for urgency in this story and cannot concoct a threat any more palpable than the “darkness” of which Mrs. Which speaks. The director loses herself in static conversation scenes and extreme close-ups of her beautiful players. That’s soap opera/TV movie camera work and no, that’s not a compliment.
The “Hero’s (heroine’s) Journey” quest takes a back seat, when it’s given any seat at all. The heroine? Meh. Jake Lloyd with curls.
The performances are as flat as the static, generally dull conversations (exposition without wit) the script makes the actors play. The story provides no highs or lows, just changes of costume and (digitally enhanced) setting.
“Selma” had built in goals, tension, heroes and villains. DuVernay is at a loss to provide them or do justice to the ones L’Engle’s novel provided.
The eye candy is, I have to say, somewhat underwhelming. This is the sort of movie that screams for a visionary director with proven chops in the genre, or at least producers with those credits. Time passes so slowly in “Wrinkle” that one can lose oneself in imagining what a Terry Gilliam in his free-spending prime, a Tim Burton or Kathryn Bigelow could have done with this.
Memo to Frances McDormand. “Inclusion riders” are a great way to bring overdue diversity to film sets, in front of and behind the camera. Read DuVernay’s IMDb page to see just how many different jobs the future “Selma” director had on film sets and in movie studios before she finally made her own breaks.
But using that as an end unto itself is how one arrives at movies of mendacious mediocrity, echo chamber productions where “feeling” and message (“Love trumps hate.”) and checkbox “This is what America looks like — EVERYbody is represented” casting take precedence. No consideration for their acting chops, they’re just here to fill a checkbox. Nobody has the wherewithal to state the obvious — this director isn’t suitable for this material.
And NOBODY remembers “Hey, we’ve got to find charismatic actors and make a riveting, witty, exciting or at least ambulatory movie out of this classic novel.” Because here, nobody did.
MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements and some peril
Cast: Storm Reid, Reese Witherspoon, Oprah Winfrey, Chris Pine, Mindy Kaling, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Zach Galifianakis, Deric McCabe, Michael Peña, Levi Miller
Credits:Directed by Ava DuVernay, script by Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell, based on the novel by Madeleine L’Engle. A Walt Disney release.
Running time: 1:47