“You’re given the form,” one of the celestial mentors says in Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time.” “But you have to write the sonnet yourself.”
This is how L’Engle described a free-will sort of life, in the novel she began in 1959. She endured 26 publishing rejections, got it into print in 1962 and saw it zoom around the world in 35 different languages. In its long shelf life, “A Wrinkle in Time” has taught millions of children and adults about the evils of conformity, the anguish of losing a parent (temporarily, in this case) and the gratifying return to the comforts of home. Meg Murry is the 13-year-old heroine at its heart.
Ideally the film director charged with bringing “A Wrinkle in Time” to early 21st century screens can cut a similar, sonnetlike arrangement. Based on the evidence, director Ava DuVernay did indeed enjoy the latitude to make this her own movie. It has flashes of inspiration and raw emotion, and beyond the famous faces in the cast, Disney’s “Wrinkle in Time” is graced with a wonderful, natural Meg courtesy of the young actress Storm Reid. Now 14, she’s easy and versatile screen company.
The movie around her is a little frustrating and rhythmically stodgy, however, partly for reasons inherent in bringing tricky, elusive material to a different medium.
It begins well. Meg and her younger, “different” brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), live with their physicist mother (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, excellent and warmly empathetic) in Los Angeles. Meg’s father (Chris Pine), a NASA scientist, has been missing for four years. Mr. and Mrs. Murry had been on the verge of cracking the secret of the tesseract, enabling humans to magically zwoop to other planets, new dimensions. Close your eyes, find “the right frequency,” and you’re off.
“Tessering” is how the story’s trio of female empowerment paragons put it. Megan learns the ropes with the miraculous celestial guidance of Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) and the mighty Mrs. Which (top-billed Oprah Winfrey, like her cohorts awash in runway-ready coifs and a planet’s worth of glittery lip gloss). The novel’s crushingly ordinary twins have been jettisoned from the movie. The focus is strictly on Meg, brother Charles Wallace and Meg’s newfound friend Calvin (Levi Miller). Together they tesser here and there, to the planets Uriel and Orion. Zach Galifianakis pops up as the Happy Medium, a seer who points the way to the missing father. Michael Pena, graced with a truly exquisite mustache, relishes his cameo as a duplicitous citizen of Camazotz, where the terrifying, Orwellian, mind-control brain IT resides.
Now: How to visualize all this? And how to retain the story’s human pulse amid such an effects-dependent and design-driven project? There are moments in “A Wrinkle in Time” that synthesize everything needed to answer those questions. The third tessering, comprising a shot of Earth and a shaft of light pointing the way to the kids’ next stop, makes for a beautiful transition. The shots of Winfrey, Witherspoon and Kaling in a wheat field, isolated figures on the horizon, recall some of the better images from Stanley Donen’s 1974 film version (a controversial one) of “The Little Prince.”
Director DuVernay’s handling of the earthbound scenes of Meg’s life feel just right. They show her dealing with the bully next door (in this version, a girl coping with an eating disorder) and the sweetness of her memories of her father. The emotional urgency, however, doesn’t quite translate to the overall picture. “A Wrinkle in Time” delivers a couple of huge, chaotic action sequences, but they’re pretty ordinary. The worlds Meg and company visit are plenty distinct from one another, but they look a lot like places we’ve seen in too many other films.
The story inevitably takes us into the “purely evil energy” of Camazotz, which transforms sweet, mind-reading Charles Wallace into a red-eyed demon variation of the brother Meg loves. These scenes won’t be easy for younger viewers; they’re horror-movie intense. The tone becomes bombastic rather than quietly sinister. The New Zealand location filming, the California locales and the elaborate soundstage environments never fully mesh into a coherent style.
Watching “A Wrinkle in Time,” I kept thinking about Spike Jonze’s 2009 film adaptation of “Where the Wild Things Are,” a movie many loathed because of the stuff that wasn’t straight out of the picture book original. That adaptation, which I found witty and emotionally devastating, required a great deal of new material.
“A Wrinkle in Time” is a different matter. A lot of the changes and the general de-vanilla-izing of the faces on screen increase the access points for a wider modern audience. And I suspect – I hope – many will find DuVernay’s “A Wrinkle in Time” a powerfully emotional experience. The daughter/father reunion sequence is a standout, and the director’s finest shot – Meg’s climactic slow-motion leap through the ribbons and curtains of time and space – suggests something truly beautiful and transporting. I wanted more of the movie to feel that way. It’s a work of considerable imagination that doesn’t quite soar.
‘A WRINKLE IN TIME’
Rating: PG (for thematic elements and some peril)