Increasingly sophisticated CGI has opened a treasure trove of children's literature to the movie industry in recent years, treating young audiences to high-quality, live-action adaptations of everything from Michael Bond's Paddington series to Roald Dahl's The BFG.
It's not hard to see why a Disney executive reading A Wrinkle in Time might figure it should be next on the list: Madeleine L'Engle's classic sci-fi fantasy tells the story of a 13-year-old girl who trips through the galaxy, stopping at various exotic planets in search of her scientist father. Images of infinite vistas, dissolving landscapes and flowery beings beckon, plus the protagonist is guided by a trio of powerful female forces and rescues her father herself: the story has got some contemporary social appeal.
And yet, with its attraction to Einsteinian physics and its clumsy metaphor for communism, A Wrinkle in Time was very much a creature of its time: It was published in 1962. There's lots of material the creators of the Disney adaptation have simply jettisoned without adding anything more than their CGI tricks. This pretty movie feels convenient rather than meaningful.
Today's Meg Murry, confidently rendered by Storm Reid, is a biracial kid who gets bullied at school and teased because her father (Chris Pine) has been mysteriously missing for four years while her little brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) is oddly precocious. (As a six-year-old in a sweater vest, McCabe mainly succeeds in being cute rather than cloying.)
Charles Wallace introduces his sister to the eccentric Mrs. Whatsit: A mischievous Reese Witherspoon in a fabulous red wig and billowing gowns has replaced a character originally described as an old tramp. Soon the children are tripping the light fantastic with the wonderfully wise and generous Mrs. Which – yes, Disney has typecast Oprah Winfrey in the role and stuck some nice rhinestones on her – and the quotation-spouting Mrs. Who, an equally welcome Mindy Kaling. They are joined on this voyage by an older boy named Calvin, Meg's nascent love interest, and in that role poor Levi Miller gets the equal opportunity as many a young actress before him: if your only job is to gaze adoringly, you inevitably look like a drip.
So, apart from the pointless Calvin, this is all rather gorgeous and passably amusing until the kids are eventually sent off to the evil planet Camazotz, where dad is being kept by the all-powerful, single mind IT. In the book, Camazotz was peopled by automatons who did everything at the same time because they had surrendered their intellects and their individuality to one central power. It was a trifle obvious, particularly when this version of 1984 could be countered by reciting the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address, but in stripping out many details of how IT holds sway, screenwriters Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell leave nothing more than the standard-issue intrinsic evil of any old apocalyptic action movie.
The effects team renders that force rather uninterestingly as a multitentacled creature of dark tree roots or gathering storm clouds. Apart from a clever seaside scene neatly handled by director Ava DuVernay as a swarm of people in colourful beach gear disport themselves in claustrophobic proximity, the movie continually reduces rather than expands its source material and becomes less and less convincing as Meg rather too rapidly saves the day.
By now, Winfrey's Mrs. Which, who in the book preached some version of Christian love and specifically mentioned Jesus, is mainly spouting psycho-babble: I told you this was typecasting. Meanwhile, Meg magically discovers self-esteem by believing in herself. This optimistic circularity is certainly contemporary, but in an age in which adults are continually amazed by children's grasp of technology, it would have made a lot more sense to let Meg harness her father's science instead of her own personality flaws. Yes, it's Oprah over Einstein as A Wrinkle in Time smooths out one too many wrinkles in its futile quest for timeliness.
The Canadian Press