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‘A Wrinkle in Time’ Is a Noble Failure

Ava DuVernay’s $100 million Oprah-assisted fantasy is strange, bombastic, and messy, but invigorating—for kids, at least, and possibly for the industry at large

Disney/Ringer illustration

Ava DuVernay’s new Disney movie, A Wrinkle in Time, is an empowerment seminar in disguise, a sleepaway emotional retreat where the prize for convincing Oprah Winfrey that you love and believe in yourself is getting to call Chris Pine “Dad” for two hours. Sounds indisputably great, I know, but the movie isn’t “great,” not in the usual Disney sense. The requisite parts are all there and everything looks good under the hood, but DuVernay has given us a less familiarly satisfying ride than the norm. This movie is stranger, more bombastic, and messier than expected. It’s also frequently invigorating — especially, I bet, if you’re a kid.

We, the adults in the room, pretty much already know how a “great” (as in classic) live-action Disney movie is supposed to look, sound, and feel, having been raised on films as wide ranging as Treasure Island, Hocus Pocus, Remember the Titans, and both versions of The Parent Trap. You don’t need to see the Disney logo up top to know that Anne Hathaway’s The Princess Diaries is a Disney endeavor. You could unthinkingly tap out the movie’s wish-fulfilling emotional beats with shave-and-a-haircut ease, and that’s exactly what makes it and other Disney movies such reliable pleasures. The industry has labeled this kind of entertainment “family,” but that seems a little coy for a genre practically synonymous with shooting stars and Mickey Mouse ears.

Whatever that “family” label connotes, though, A Wrinkle in Time … isn’t quite it. The movie’s certainly about a family, no argument there. And each of the necessary emotional pivots is present and accounted for in Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell’s script. But something feels deliberately and deliriously off-kilter here, like we’re watching the body snatcher version of a Disney movie. It’s your regular-shmegular, inspiring, girl-power fantasy on the surface. But sometimes, when it opens its mouth, it speaks the inglorious 21st-century language of TED Talks, Hamilton quotes, and self-care jargon.

That’s the iffy part. The movie largely comes off as compellingly offbeat, however, if also sometimes incoherent, despite what can feel like a slick mandate to sell its preteen audience on a certain brand of inspiration-speak, rather than just on inspiration. A Wrinkle in Time is not the cynical compendium of Twitter-curated trend grabs it seems tempted to become, but the temptation is noticeable. DuVernay, who’s a much more angular and imaginative filmmaker than she’s often credited for being (even in well-intentioned, supportive takes on her work), is not ashamed of trying to inspire her audience, but her filmmaking is much smarter than whatever people have in mind when they accuse directors of trying to inspire people — heaven forbid. She has largely fashioned A Wrinkle in Time into a trippy, unpredictable fantasy about a young black girl’s wavering sense of self-worth and the universal forces — from familial love to “tesseracts” — it takes to get her to embrace her own power. That’s a little different from the book’s angle, but what the movie’s differences from the book reflect, above all, are what Madeleine L’Engle’s books have meant to the generations of young girls who’ve read them. Well — that, and the pop-feminist credos of the moment. As Oprah says in the film more than once: “Be a warrior.” It’s just vague enough a piece of advice to be useful.

DuVernay’s previous movie, the Oscar-nominated Selma, went out of its way to invoke and analyze, but not emulate, every civil rights movie we’d all already seen and forgotten. A Wrinkle in Time’s relationship to other Disney movies is much the same, down to DuVernay employing a cast led by Chris Pine, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and the movie’s young star, Storm Reid, who together resemble the remixed vision of the American nuclear family you used to be able to see only in Cheerios commercials. That much is beautiful. You could sum the movie’s mission statement up in what is, as of this writing, DuVernay’s bio on Twitter: “A girl from Compton who got to make a Disney movie.” Or be in one!

Maybe it’s because those goals are so admirable, and the script so loaded with platitudes to that effect, that so much of the focus in the media so far has been on DuVernay and her powerful collaborators’ intentions rather than on the massive challenges of bringing this movie to the screen in the first place. But that’s the true accomplishment here. Like L’Engle’s sci-fi-fantasy novel from 1962, the movie tells the story of the Murry family — mother Kate (Mbatha-Raw), who’s a microbiologist, oldest daughter Meg (Reid), and adopted son Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) — who are in the midst of trying to get over the disappearance of NASA scientist Alexander Murry (Pine), a.k.a. Dad. Alex was working on a new form of space travel, one premised on traveling with the mind. He either figured it out or, as a pair of teachers at Meg’s school are later overheard to gossip, simply ditched his weirdo family. The movie gets going four years after he disappears, by which point Meg has proved herself a little bit of a malcontent in school, throwing a basketball at the face of a girl who makes fun of her and the preternaturally smart Charles Wallace. That’s par for the course; it’s clear Meg is still hurting from the loss of her father.

But then a white-robed Reese Witherspoon, playing the celestial being Mrs. Whatsit, shows up in the Murrys’ house one night unannounced, claiming to know a thing or two about Alex’s disappearance and dropping words like “tesseract,” which I only halfway understand thanks to National Geographic and Interstellar (this movie was unfortunately no help). Charles Wallace seems to know what’s going on, however, and soon after, Meg and Calvin, a popular boy from school who’s taken a liking to her, are led to the house of Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), who speaks entirely in trite quotes from world-famous philosophers, like Lin-Manuel Miranda and Outkast. Soon after that, a 50-foot-tall Oprah has appeared, playing Mrs. Which, implicitly the most powerful of the three celestial beings because she’s played by Oprah.

They were drawn here by a distress call — from Meg’s father. That’s the seed of a larger mystery, and the movie of course becomes a rescue mission from there, with Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin learning to bend time and space to travel unknown distances with their new friends. It’s a journey that takes them all the way to a dark planet called Camazotz, which is controlled by a disembodied brain called the It. Relatively little is explained in satisfying detail, like why it’s so easy for these young humans to learn to tesser, as it’s called, to the outer reaches of space, or just who and what these celestial beings are, or what, in a specific sense, the It even is.

But there are Themes — those, at least, ring loud and clear, and to the extent that Camazotz and the rest are just a convoluted excuse to map out Meg’s hard-won journey to self-love, the rest makes weird sense, too. Whereas L’Engle’s novel was loaded with Christian subtext, DuVernay’s movie plays the empowerment gospel. Out with L’Engle’s Bible references; in with Oprah. It’s Interstellar by way of “You get a car!” Oprah, when she first appears, is all bedazzled brow and translucent skirt, looking down upon us from her high, knowing perch. Who needs a god? This is Oprah playing Oprah, rather than Oprah giving us a lived-in character (as she did beautifully in DuVernay’s Selma). Witherspoon and Kaling, meanwhile, come off as her newly anointed minions — again, playing themselves. There’s a gloriously weird layer of metafiction to all this, and it makes the movie utterly strange to watch, in a way that might not even be noticeable if you’re a kid but is a bit bonkers if you’re an adult. These three women are smartly, knowingly wielding their personae — wielding the movie — like it’s a platform for their own social causes, which of course it is. This is a movie, remember, centered on a teenage girl who’s lost her father, has few friends, feels inferior in her looks, etc., etc. — she could use a pep squad. Who better than Oprah and Elle Woods?

I don’t begrudge anyone their involvement, but these three performances clash with the stark sincerity of DuVernay’s supremely talented child actors, particularly Reid. The movie star turns read like an extra layer of artifice, excess branding for a movie that’s already a heavily studio-branded piece of canonical IP. The utter lack of context for Mrs. Which and friends spells out the limited extent of the movie’s interest in these women as characters. They’re big-name spiritual guides, celebrity eggers-on, booting Meg in the rear whenever she needs it. Somewhere around the time when Witherspoon animorphs into a lettuce dragon (not a technical term), I’d given up on trying to understand the how or why or even who — it’s just Reese. It’s product placement, really. She and the other stars, and the multiracial coalition of powerful Hollywood women that their presence represents, is the product. That certainly resonates. Maybe, if the performances had been more tuned in, less a matter of posturing and artifice and more a part of the movie’s world, it’d have resonated in a different way.

It’s interesting, though, that this coalition should include DuVernay — that DuVernay is herself something of a celebrity. She has fast become one of my favorite figures in Hollywood for her willingness to speak up and out about the back ends of the business, lending a frankness to how the industry treats women of color, in particular. She’s a smart, sensitive director who’s full, no doubt, of extraordinary stories she’s yet to tell. But I wonder whether her primary legacy won’t ultimately be her stark visibility, her ability to wield it on behalf of other, similarly underrepresented directors. Not long ago, DuVernay was the hopeful upstart being profiled by The New York Times for the unlikely inroads she’d already made into this notoriously tough industry, rising from seasoned publicist to Sundance trophy-winning Oscar hopeful thanks to her second and third features, Middle of Nowhere and Selma. Now, she’s the only Hollywood director in recent memory that I can think of to grace the cover of a magazine like Elle — and not, like James Cameron on the cover of NatGeo, for burrowing 20,000 leagues under the sea, nor, like Chris Nolan on the cover of Wired, for getting lost in space. That prominence has been afforded DuVernay for a task just as Herculean but decidedly less showy: being a commercially prominent, respected woman of color in the industry. Cameron and Nolan, whose appeal to the industry is taken as a given, likely take their status for granted. That is precisely why it matters.

DuVernay has been bestowed a sense of importance and abiding respect that seems so far to have taken a curious hold over the conversation. A Wrinkle in Time is the first movie by a black woman in Hollywood to be made for $100 million, which is no small benchmark on the heels of the wild success of Black Panther, released just last month. Does that explain the temptation, on the part of the press, to handle the movie with kid gloves? As of this writing, the movie is a green stain on Rotten Tomatoes, but let’s not start drawing the chalk outline — or making excuses — quite yet. “This film is more than a film,” writes Yolanda Machado of Marie Claire. “It’s more than its reviews — good or bad.” It’s true that the movie is an important industry benchmark, and that this is separate from the question of whether or not the film is good or bad. Ironically, a true marker of progress would in fact be a bad, unprofitable movie by a woman director that doesn’t tank her career, as has traditionally been the case at a higher rate than their male counterparts. Maybe the best possible indicator of industry growth would be for this movie to fail and for it not to matter — just another misfire, who cares? But shouldn’t we want it to be good?

I happen to think that there’s plenty to admire about A Wrinkle in Time, even as its well-branded messaging overpowers narrative and emotional sense, and even as some of the beats don’t quite land with the force you sense they need. The best scenes, the scenes I can’t wait to return to, are the ones that forsake the CGI bombast, zany colors, Rumi quotes, and the rest to just focus on people. Take the opening scenes, of Meg at school, framed with the same sense of geometry and close attention that DuVernay brought to the finest scenes in Selma. You know this isn’t your usual Disney movie just by the way she relies on evocative close-ups and hero poses that peer straight into her characters’ inner lives while also giving a keen sense of their relationships to one another. We spend a lot of time looking up to Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin — looking up at them, rather, even as Meg’s lack of self-confidence seems to make her wilt under the camera’s gaze.

Subtle touches like this do more than any carefully curated quote to secure our feelings for DuVernay’s characters, to the point that you wish the script were less structurally fussy and more informative. Even then, her talent with actors still resonates. Pine, Mbatha-Raw, and the likes of André Holland, Zach Galifianakis, and Michael Peña envelop the proceedings like a warm hug — they’re almost too good. A hint of flirtation between Witherspoon and Galifinakis almost makes you want to quit this hero stuff and leap out into their celestial rom-com in the making. Nothing beats Storm Reid as Meg, however. This poised young actress carries a relatively rocky movie on her confident shoulders with great clarity. The movie is better for it.

There’s a good movie in here somewhere, but it’s beset with too many obligations, and maybe too much in the way of expectations. When the movie really gets going — as during a sequence with talking flowers, or a Stepford-esque scene in an artificially synchronized neighborhood that makes you wonder whether DuVernay has a few Jordan Peele tricks up her sleeve — it makes you wonder about what might have been. But then you remember the movie that it is, the kids it will undoubtedly inspire, the chance it gave DuVernay to flex her big-budget muscles with style and care. And you realize that wanting the movie to be classically great, or lamenting that it isn’t, is asking the movie to be something that, for its target audience at least, it doesn’t need to strain to be, because in the ways that matter, it already is.