After years of stops and starts, the lavish big-screen adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time might give credence to those who declared the classic Madeleine L’Engle novel unfilmable.
The visual resplendence outpaces the emotional pull in this ambitious but overwrought fantasy saga from director Ava DuVernay (Selma) that’s mildly charming as a tribute to childhood innocence and female empowerment, yet muddled as a tale of resilience, redemption, and the power of imagination.
The coming-of-age story follows Meg (Storm Reid), a smart but socially awkward teenager trying to cope with the disappearance of her scientist father (Chris Pine). He was working on a breakthrough known as a tesseract, which allows travel between dimensions.
Meg hasn’t given up hope for his return, and her spirits are lifted when her younger brother (Deric McCabe) introduces her to a trio of altruistic and colorfully accessorized visitors — Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey) — who offer clues to her dad’s whereabouts.
Soon, the siblings and an eager classmate (Levi Miller) are being transported between galaxies, where their search pits them against malevolent forces that threaten the balance of the universe.
Fans of the source material might quibble with the film’s reliance on special effects — vibrant and seamless as they might be — while watering down some of the book’s dramatic texture (and its faith-based overtones).
Perhaps that’s pandering to short attention spans. Yet interpreting this particular story while refreshing its themes for a new generation is tricky, and the filmmakers deserve credit for preserving many of the more foreboding and perilous elements in Meg’s journey.
As a result, the material is frequently too dark and thematically dense for younger children. It might resonate with more mature kiddos who can identify with the plight of the protagonists, both in their sense of adventure and their more internalized struggles.
Led by Reid (12 Years a Slave), all three youngsters are charismatic and appealing, even if the precocious nature of their characters sometimes feels forced. The adult members of the diverse ensemble mostly stay out of the way except for Winfrey, who literally hovers ominously over the proceedings while dispensing pearls of wisdom.
A Wrinkle in Time has lessons to impart, of course, about self-esteem and overcoming adversity, but it’s missing an overarching sense of wonder. For all of its high-minded ideas, the film rarely soars.