Despite being way off the target demographic for Disney’s latest “How-the-Hell-do-we-promote-this-visual-effects-extravaganza,” the promise of 109 minutes of whimsical escapism on a March night proved an irresistible draw. A Wrinkle in Time is not Disney’s first adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s allegorical science fiction/fantasy novel of 1962 as a television adaptation had already aired in 2003 but this is the first big-screen version and the studio have decided to spend substantial money on it.
The plot is relatively simple, as physicist Alexander Murry (Star Trek Beyond‘s Chris Pine, impressively bearded) becomes convinced he can travel across the vastness of space in the blink of an eye using some sketchy quantum entanglement/harmonic resonance theories. He disappears from the family home one evening leaving behind his wife Kate (The Cloverfield Paradox‘s Gugu Mbatha-Raw), daughter Meg (Storm Reid) and adopted toddler son Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe).
Four years later, Meg, now thirteen, has to suffer daily bullying at school over her father’s abandonment of the family while her brother, now a precocious child genius stirs things up by constantly pointing out the obvious. Meg’s only real friend is the somewhat mysterious and kindly boy Calvin O’Keefe (Pan‘s Levi Miller).
After a particularly bad day at school, Charles Wallace leads Meg and Calvin on a chase to meet some new friends of his, three exotically-garbed mature women (Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling and Oprah Winfrey) who turn out to be ancient elemental beings drawn to Meg’s family by a cry of help from across the stars: they have come to assist Meg in finding her father.
Confirming that his theories were valid and that he is now somewhere on the other side of the galaxy, the ladies whisk Meg and the boys to the place he was last seen and discover he is now being held prisoner by the It, a malevolent force of darkness. The ladies unable to enter this realm, it is up to Meg, Charles Wallace and Calvin to make the perilous journey, find Alex and bring him home.
Thematically the film owes a great deal to such works as The Wizard of Oz and there are design elements reminiscent of that classic 1939 film, and in common with many films of this ilk in recent years most of the production effort has gone into the art design at the expense of characterisation and coherent plotting despite the highly regarded source material.
Visually, A Wrinkle in Time is reminiscent of recent design riots such as Oz The Great and Powerful and Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 and there are even hints of Jodorowsky’s delirious Holy Mountain in the mix, the result being that at times the featherlight story takes a back seat while the camera revels in the visual effects.
Fortunately, the film has three saving graces in the form of the juvenile cast, Reid embodying the perfect balance of self-doubt and inner grit and making a sympathetic protagonist while at the age of eight McCabe gives a performance of astonishing range for someone so young.
Although Miller has the most thankless task, mostly relegated to background support, his character being little more than a cypher, fortunately he is talented enough to bring something to it, and the ensemble is ably supported by the luxury casting of Zach Galifianakis and Michael Peña in small but vital supporting roles.
In accord with modern practices Disney have brought the almost-sixty-year-old tale into the 21st-century by introducing a racially-mixed cast. There are also hints in both the script and Miller’s performance that young Calvin might be gay; that would certainly make sense of the curiously unresolved relationship between Calvin and Meg, though there is nothing so overt as to trigger the backlash which greeted Beauty and the Beast.
Despite this, with many of the story elements part of quest narratives for thousands of years it should have been possible to have delivered a story of almost primeval resonance but director Ava DuVernay allows the sentimental elements to dominate and the result is a somewhat saccharine and shallow tale of the power of love.
Where Dave McKean’s 2005 adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s MirrorMask tackled a similar subject in a much more mature and atmospheric way, this will principally linger in the memory as the film in which Reese Witherspoon transforms herself into a giant flying cabbage, and overall this is a missed opportunity, little more than a wrinkle itself.
A Wrinkle in Time is on general release and also screening in 3D