A Wrinkle in Time (2018) by Ava DuVernay
Review by Lydia Creech
Madeleine L'Engle's 1962 novel Wrinkle in Time is cosmic in scope and theme, and just… leave it to Disney to reduce it to the personal. Badly.
People keep calling the book unfilmable, so I guess I will, too, but L’Engle’s basic framework for the conflict of the novel (without getting into the complicated theologics) is a battle in the universe between the Light and the Dark, and somehow Meg (Storm Reid), the main character, and her family are involved. Her father has gone missing, and it’s up to her to find him, which also will somehow be a win for the side of Light. This SHOULD be right in Disney’s wheelhouse -- the simple starting place of Good v. Evil is like fairytale 101 -- but somewhere along the way things fall apart in awkward CGI setpieces and messaging that feels like it should be instructive for young girls but never quite lands (I should have been tipped off by the fact that one of the screenwriters is Jennifer Lee of Frozen fame, which I hated and I will fight you forever on this).
The thing is, I and nearly everyone I know so badly wanted this to be a successful adaptation. The book certainly had a special place in my childhood for opening the world of science fiction up to girls by having one as a protagonist. Science and physics and math were presented as something cool that girls could be good at, too! When the casting of the film was announced, everyone got even more excited; Oprah, Mindy Kaling, and Reese Witherspoon seemed like a Mrs Ws dreamteam, and I really liked the idea of casting Meg as a mixed girl. It feels like natural extension to the coolness of having a girl scifi protagonist in the book -- now even more girls can see themselves represented as characters in genres that typically excludes them. So far, so good.
I’m not even upset, really, about the things that got cut; going from page to screen requires compacting, so I don’t need my adaptations to be perfect recreations. I’m actually grateful the overt Christianity was ditched as well (which seems like the disappointing factor for some reviewers), in addition to the book’s outdated Catholic and Romani stereotyping (thanks, again, to the GREAT casting choices DuVernay made). With the barrier to entry of Christian baggage side-stepped, Wrinkle in Time the movie could have been prime ground for re-inventing mythology in a more inclusive way.
However. Although I approve of the things subtracted, the movie really falls down where beats were added. The much talked about sequence of “Reese Witherspoon transforming into a giant piece of kale” was just the kind of hyperactive, hurts-my-eyes offputting special effects assault that undercuts anything serious that happens around it--that is, the introduction of The Darkness. It’s a key moment in the book, where L’Engle really gets to develop her conception of Evil and why it needs to be fought, but here it’s immediately shied away from in favor of putting one of the kids in physical peril by falling off the flying lettuce.
Consistently, at every turn, Wrinkle balks from abstract ideas about Evil -- and Evil doesn’t have to be Christianity’ s version of Original Sin and turning from God’s Light -- and instead makes it physically embodied somehow: like a scary tree vortex or shadowy brain cells or a literal manifestation of a young girl’s insecurities. The last is the start of a good idea, but it comes soso late in the film and the storyline of her embracing her identity, “flaws” and all (there’s a running thing about her hair and accepting compliments which… I have all sorts of problems with. Teen girls don’t have to smile and take comments that make them uncomfortable.), doesn’t quite connect with “missing father” storyline.
On the one hand, this iiiis a kid’s movie, apparently, and it’s a great chance to show off that 103 million dollar budget. On the other, making the take-away be an explicit moral “accept yourself! Have self-love!” cheapens what the audience is going to leave with. Either kids can deal with really complicated ideas and come to their own conclusions (“unfilmable”) or they need their hands held with shiny animation the whole way through. Disney obviously believes the latter.