DuVernay finally has cracked the code that prevented a movie version of Madeleine L’Engle’s Newbury Award-winning 1962 children’s book all these years. That she got it made incorporating a diverse lineup of characters not specified that way in the book is admirable and makes yet another Disney release in which people of all ethnicities might be able to see themselves up on the screen. Nothing wrong with that but, as I say in my video review (click the link above to watch), it often gets buried under an avalanche of manic special effects designed to keep the attention of its now-sophisticated target audience more so than when the book was released at the height of the Cold War in a world full of darkness. The idea here is to show the way out of darkness and into the light. Its success rides solely on its ability to touch that core audience in the way that DuVernay’s superb films Selma, 13th and Middle of Nowhere played to smart-thinking adults. What she has done that particularly works well is colorblind casting not suggested by L’Engle but greatly enhancing the film’s impact.
Meg Murry (feisty newcomer Storm Reid) is the daughter of a mixed-race couple played by Chris Pine and Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Both are physicists, and Pine’s character has been missing for four years after discovering Tessering, which essentially is a wrinkling of time and space that allows near-instantaneous intergalactic travel. Meg, fearing that evil forces have gotten to her father, is determined to learn what happened and to find him. With precocious brother Charles Wallace (a lively Deric McCabe) and best friend Calvin (Levi Miller) in tow, Meg sets out on her journey to the nether regions of the universe thanks to the guidance of three otherworldly figures who appear one day. They are Mrs. Which (a heavily mascara-ed Oprah Winfrey), Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) and the ever-talkative and enthusiastic Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon). Think of them as the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion accompanying Meg on her Wizard of Oz-like adventure into the unknown. The comparison is apt and obvious, though I doubt people will be talking about this film 8o years from now the way we still revere that 1939 Judy Garland classic.
It’s tough capturing movie magic in a bottle despite a $100 million-plus budget and all these new CGI toys at the disposal of its director, who is working in this realm for the first time. Certainly DuVernay proves herself capable of putting all the pieces together, but in a movie full of cliché-ish homilies, the emotional beats aren’t as plentiful as they might have been. I get that the film’s not necessarily for me, so maybe there is just something lost in generational translation in hoping I too might be transported to my youth. I admire what the filmmakers have done here even if it relies too heavily on those special effects. It certainly is colorful, even charming in some ways, and the kids take acting honors for keeping it all together.
The older stars deliver what they asked with Pine and Mbatha-Raw being warm presences and the three Mrs. doing what they can. Oprah does Oprah better than anyone, but the dialogue (from a script by Jennifer Lee and John Stockwell) tries too hard to inspire. Kaling doesn’t get a whole lot to do by comparison, while Witherspoon works overtime to be awfully cute. Michael Peña as Red and Zach Galifianakis as the Happy Medium turn up as oddball characters along the way, but this film belongs to the appealing and smart Reid and her young co-horts, especially Miller, who underplays it nicely.
DuVernay, nostalgic for the Disney-fied films of another era, points to Escape from Witch Mountain as an inspiration. That 43-year-old film came from a very different Disney studio than the Star Wars/Marvel/Pixar–driven one turning out family hits today, so it will be interesting to see if this almost-retro film can find its groove in an unforgiving box office environment. Hopefully we haven’t lost our innocence and still need to believe in the light. Give it an A for effort at least.
Producers are Catherine Hand and Jim Whitaker. Disney opens it Friday. Do you plan to see A Wrinkle in Time? Let us know what you think.