There’s a slew of inspirational messages in this film, and Ava Duvernay wants to make sure every young person hears them. She does so by repeating and stating them so directly and forcefully I almost expected her to jump out of the screen and start shaking every preteen girl into being positive. That’s a profound goal for such a director to instill a sense of heroism in the least popular kids at school, but it comes with a twinge of awkwardness in how the hero has to be told multiple times she is special and that only she can defeat the evil in the universe. She’s given so many pep talks I wondered why she didn’t start displaying the same uncomfortable nature of a kid’s over-encouraging parents at their baseball game.
What’s so unique about our protagonist of Meg (Storm Reid)? Nothing much. She seems to be your average nerdy kid in school that misses her dad (Chris Pine) who went missing years ago. But she’s in for a big surprise when her brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) and her crush Calvin (Levi Miller) all discover that dear old dad found a way to bend space and time. He’s been held captive on the other side of the universe, and Meg needs to rescue him with the help of three astral travelers. These travelers include Reese Witherspoon trying to channel the ditziness of Amy Adams ala Enchanted, Mindy Kaling speaking only in Earthling quotes (a gimmick so monotonous even the character stops doing it), and Oprah Winfrey literally watching over them as a towering giant. I don’t fully understand who these beings are supposed to be past their good samaritan attitudes with warping space and time. Get used to this unexplained surrealness because the film won’t slow down to explain any of this.
While the story seems as though it’s taking steroids to sprint through a teenage hero plot in under two hours, I almost prefer it as opposed to when the movie slows down to focus on the theme delivered with the force of a sledgehammer to the face. When Meg isn’t having her self-esteem boosted by the magical female trio, she’s speaking awkwardly with her smart brother or shyly with her crush. Their dialogue is so matter-of-fact that their delivery comes off more clinical than charismatic. This is especially true for the young Deric McCabe that is struggling to pull double duty as an insanely intelligent young man and then a possessed vessel by the easily-angered spirit of evil. I felt bad for him since he’s the youngest and has the most demanding of roles among the young heroes, whereas Meg needs to look bewildered and Calvin needs to look cute.
It’s undeniable that A Wrinkle in Time is beautiful to look at, but one would hope so with a $100 million budget. Indeed, the first stop on a trip around the universe is to a grassy meadow of sentient flowers and flying creatures that look like a cross between a fairy and a manta ray. It seems like a fun place to frolic, but the plot stops instantly as if the astral trio demand the children enjoy the production design. Those visual effects teams spent a fortune on making this world, and you will enjoy it, an impending quest for your long-lost dad be damned! There is an additional stop at the cave of a universal seer (Zach Galifianakis), dwelling in a cave of balanced rocks. Again, great to look at, but does little more than either push the plot or stop it. There’s no happy medium of establishing our characters, even with Galifianakis playing a role called The Happy Medium.
And you better get used to those ridiculous and base names. Oprah Winfrey’s character is Mrs. Which, a name that is quickly exhausted for all its comedic potential. The same goes for Reese Witherspoon as Mrs. Whatsit and Mindy Kaling as Mrs. Who. Curiously missing is Mrs. Huh to ground their clunky introductions. The evil they must face is referred to as the Darkness, controlled by the being known as the It. And when the It is finally met, it’s about as bland as its description implies. It’s a mess of dark tendrils that pulsate with bursts of orange light, completely underwhelming when finally revealed after the less frightening Darkness entrances of a wheat field and a crowded beach.
While I half-expected the movie to go for the old cliche of the Darkness representing all the anger in the universe and Meg is the only one that can stop it, I was still disappointed that the film went there. And in case that wasn’t blunt enough, the movie goes the extra mile to call Meg a warrior to be compared to the likes of Nelson Mandela, Oskar Schindler, and Gandhi. Those men made great sacrifices that will be remembered in history, but I guess you can be their equal if you fight a giant tendril monster by stating your love for your brother.
As a kid’s first fantasy film, they’ll probably get a kick out of the visuals and the message. Just don’t expect it to stand as tall next to stronger fantasy films that do a far better job at placing young heroes on pedestals without directly telling them that they’re special.