Fantasy films aimed towards children can be a very tricky proposition. Usually, films of this type aim to entertain the entire family but for ones that specifically aim for children, how does one critique a film like this? Judge the film for what it is? Or judge the film through the eyes of a child?
This is the conundrum of reviewing the latest fantasy film from Disney, A Wrinkle in Time. Director Ava DuVernay says in the introductory video that she specifically made for children between ages 8-12, which is quite perplexing, considering that part of the audience would be adults who read the book in their youth.
Nevertheless, it is the latest film from the acclaimed director, who is fresh off of the Oscar-nominated documentary 13th. An attempt to adapt Madeleine L’Engle‘s novel of the same name was made back in 2003, which L’Engle herself hated. But now, fans of the book will have their hopes up, considering the talent involved in the new film.
It is DuVernay’s first film with a $100 million dollar budget (the first African-American female director to have such a budget) and it is her first film venturing into genre territory. With a spectacular cast, big studio support and a beloved source material, this could be a great film.
Like all fantasy films, they all start off with a discovery. And A Wrinkle in Time starts off with Dr. Alexander Murray (Chris Pine) and Dr. Kate Murray (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) discovering a new planet called Camozotz. Deep into the research to the point that it becomes an obsession, he discovers away to travel between planets via the tesseract, a type of space-travel. But he mysteriously disappears for years, with many people presuming abandonment or death.
Next, we follow Meg Murry (Storm Reid) and her little brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), who have been without their scientist father for five years now. And because of that, the two come into struggles of adjusting to their daily routine, particularly Meg when she’s at school.
But when three magical beings, Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) and Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) inform the two about their father’s whereabouts, they all set out to venture to Camozotz to rescue their father from the impending evil, known as the IT
department (voiced by David Oyelowo).
In most cases, it is preferred that making a problematic film with huge ambitions is better than making a generic film that plays it safe. And in this case, A Wrinkle in Time is a noble failure in its aspirations.
Treating this film as a cup that is half-full, let’s begin with the positives. In the lead role, Storm Reid acquits herself quite well, as she believably conveys the dilemmas of Meg like her self-doubt, her stress and her anger. And she makes it easy for the audience to believe that behind her awkward demeanor lies a smart and resourceful girl who will one day be able to fully assert herself, despite the pandering screenplay that constantly reminds the audience that she’ll do so.
There are some scenes that transcend the conventions of studio filmmaking and aim for a surrealistic and extravagant grandeur that succeed quite well, like a scene set in a colourful neighbourhood involving dodgeballs or a splendourous scene involving a vast valley with sentient flowers.
The film becomes particularly effective when the dark nature of the plot kicks in, as the performances become entertainingly unhinged (although one particular performance is unintentionally funny) and the settings become more haunting. In one scene, the lead characters are dragged through a dark hallway by a malevolent force that reminded me of the old horror films and fantasies of the 80’s and early 90’s. In this reviewer’s case, Chuck Russell‘s A Nightmare on Elm Street III: Dream Warriors.
And some of the supporting cast give good performances like Chris Pine, who has become more soulful over the last few films; Gugu Mbatha-Raw gives a good performance as always as the grieving mother of the Murray family, while Michael Pena fits the fairy tale vibe of the story quite well, careering through whimsy and villainy in a fun way.
And now, treating this film as a half-empty cup, we get to the negatives. Despite the vast ambitions of the story, the potential for emotionally stirring drama from its thematic material and its fantasy genre leanings, under the directorial handling of DuVernay, the film is surprisingly inert and mundane.
Every event, obstacle or revelation that happens in this film feels utterly contrived and blatantly calculated. Some of the reason is due to the jarring editing, which cuts more frequently than it should, often negating the wonder of the settings. The pacing is quite slow in the first 40-50 minutes, as the characters barely progress in their journey, leaving one hoping the film would pick up the pace. It is because of these flaws that the audience feels more like an observer, rather than a participant in the adventure.
And for a $100 million dollar film by Disney, the special effects are wildly inconsistent. Particularly in a scene involving the characters meeting the Happy Medium, played by an off-putting Zach Galifianakis, where the green-screen is so noticeable, that the actors look incredibly silly, acting as if they are losing balance. Unfortunately, the only thing that is losing balance on screen is the film.
Another reason is the problematic script by Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell, which dispenses one groaning platitude after another like “You are a warrior!” or “You can do this!” or this reviewer’s absolute favourite, “You just have to have faith in who you are!”. The pandering also goes to the musical score and the choices of music, which telegraph what the audience is meant to feel, rather than trusting the audience to do so. Children between the ages 8-12 don’t need to be pandered to in order to get the message of the film.
Speaking of the script, there are many plot holes, inconsistencies and questionable character decisions that frequently take one out of the film. Here are just some that pervade through the story. Why aren’t the characters scared when they see such beings like a giant Oprah Winfrey? Why don’t any of the neighbours notice these beings appearing in the Murray’s backyard?
In a dramatic scene, Meg insists that she would never dream of abandoning her brother on the planet. But funnily enough, in an action scene that occurred just a few minutes earlier, she loses track of Charles Wallace while trying to outrun the IT. And the boy magically reappears at the end of the scene without bothering to explain how he survived. Excuse me?
In a particular scene, the characters are hungry and are invited to eat food by a suspicious character, and they avoid it, sensing danger. And yet, in the very next scene, they eat food that belongs to a stranger, who also happens to be very suspicious. Huh? There could have been some studio tampering or many rewrites that happened behind the scenes, but deep down, the only thing that matters is what’s on screen.
The problematic script also affects many of the supporting cast suffer because of it, leading to some crummy performances. Oprah Winfrey, as Mrs. Which, is only given lines of proclamation to deliver and it gets to the point that it becomes laughable, like the character of Sphinx in the 1999 underrated superhero comedy, Mystery Men.
Reese Witherspoon, as Mrs. Whatsit, is given the most dialogue to play with but her attempt to portray whimsy just makes her quite annoying. Mindy Kaling, on the other hand as Mrs. Who, is given very little to do and the majority of her dialogue is quoting famous figures, including one that is an absolutely poor attempt of a joke. The quoting may have worked on the written page, but as spoken on screen, it comes off as, once again, annoying.
And then there’s the young actors. Australia’s Levi Miller hasn’t really impressed with his roles in American films, despite giving good performances back at home with films like Better Watch Out and Jasper Jones. In the case of his performance in A Wrinkle in Time, he continues his unimpressive line with another bland performance as Calvin. But one shouldn’t really lay the fault on Miller, since the script never really provides a reason for Calvin to be in the film. He’s completely superfluous that if the filmmakers were to cut him out of the script, the film would not be affected whatsoever.
And there’s the performance of Deric McCabe. In many Hollywood films, filmmakers tend to lend problematic performances out of child actors. On the one end of the acting spectrum, they can surprise with their acting range, showing maturity beyond their years in a natural fashion. But on the other end, they can come across as phony, unbelievable and annoyingly precocious.
And it is unfortunate that McCabe’s performance ends up on the latter end. He plays to the camera as if he’s desperate for attention and his line delivery feels incredibly rehearsed to the point that it comes across as creepy. It also doesn’t help that the character is clearly a screenwriter construct. No child, no matter how smart he or she is, would ever speak the way Charles Wallace does in this film. And to make matters worse, his character becomes a figure of greater importance in the third act and is supplied with a major character change. And it is abundantly clear that McCabe is not up to the task, despite being unintentionally hilarious in doing so.
And in the end, it’s clear that DuVernay was not up to the task in bring A Wrinkle in Time to the big screen. It does have scenes of striking beauty, some good performances and moments of entertaining whimsy and oddness. Unfortunately, the script is all over the place, the direction lacks the drive to make the film emotionally stirring, some of the performances are disappointing and the visual splendour is surprisingly sloppy in places. And like Kaling’s character, Mrs. Who, let’s end with a quote.
“Is the glass half empty or half full?”
Review Score: TWO AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
A Wrinkle In Time is in cinemas today.