How Bad Is… A Wrinkle in Time (2018)?
Nutcracker and the Four Realms looks to be struggling at the box office, so we reflect upon another Disney live action film that faltered this year.
Disney will wind up being 2018’s biggest money maker for movie studios by a comfortable margin. Despite the huge successes of Marvel projects like Black Panther and Pixar projects like Incredibles 2, the mouse has had a couple of big flops as well. Lately, the live action fantasy adaptations that used to be big business (think Pirates of the Caribbean) have shriveled. Last week The Nutcracker and the Four Realms bombed at home and abroad. Earlier in the year, Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time had quite a few wrinkles of its own. As a fan of the novel it was based on, I was anxious to see it on the big screen, but it came out around the time MoviePass was imploding. As we clear up our 2018 leftovers, I decided to check out A Wrinkle in Time and see if it was as bad as the numbers suggested. I was pleasantly surprised.
A Wrinkle in Time (2018).
Meg Murray (Storm Reid) is having a tough time as she enters her teens. She doesn’t like her looks, struggles with being too smart for her classes, and has to deal with bullies. She’s also has to look out for her adopted little brother, Charles Wallace, who is brilliant but extremely eccentric. Finally, her father has been missing for four years. Dr. Alex Murray (Chris Pine) was a radical physicist, and both Murray parents were breaking ground on a novel idea of space/time travel. Chafing at incredulous colleagues, Mr. Murray ignores his more level-headed wife and starts his experiment, vanishing without a trace.
Four years later Meg is losing her way. Luckily three mysterious beings named Mrs. Which, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Whatsit (Oprah, Mindy Kaling, Reese Witherspoon) arrive to give her guidance. Unfortunately that guidance is to travel to the ends of the galaxy with her little brother and a classmate named Calvin in order to battle an evil entity that has captured her father.
What Went Right?
- Grand Visuals. Madeleine L’Engle’s book is filled with fantastic creatures and places that defy easy visualization. I’d imagine the mental image readers construct for many of them is as varied as the readers. Compare that to, say, The Hobbit, where it is no less fantastical but easily imagined. I’d hazard a guess that pretty much every child came away from Bilbo’s adventures with a very similar mental picture.
Ava DuVernay and Disney do a wonderful job of making a vision of L’Engle’s world that is their own and engaging. The major settings such as the verdant planet of Uriel, the labyrinthine home of the Happy Medium, and the dangerously shifting world of Camazotz are beautifully rendered and given their own spin on the source material. The same rings true of many of the creatures being re-imagined. As a fan of the book, I felt they captured the metaphorical essence of the work while having a unique stamp to them.
- Trim and Focused. A Wrinkle in Time keeps a lot of balls in the air thematically as a book. Coming of age, self identity, abandonment, abuse, and other deeply personal issues contend with loftier themes of good versus evil, totalitarianism, mysticism, and new age philosophy. It can get to be a bit of a muddle. It would seem on the surface that DuVernay is complicating them further by adding race, multi-racial family dynamics, and adoption to the stew.
In practice, the film gives a light touch with most of these themes, allowing the motif of love versus fear to remain central. By making sure the main theme clear, the other themes all pull together. Meg’s abandonment issues, her struggle with her appearance (and blackness, as coded by her hatred for her “messy” hair), and her self sabotage because of her intelligence all feed into the theme of fear of acceptance versus self love. The film touches on very pertinent issues of race, totalitarianism, and fear of the “other”, but remains focused on the bigger picture.
- A Smart Script. I’m not in love with many of the performances in Disney’s film. There are a few quite good performances (Storm Reid and Zack Galifianakis), some intriguing but under developed performances (Oprah, Michael Peña), and some real misfires (Reese Witherspoon, Levi Miller). What I did like was the way the script kept everything tidy. Beyond just narrative flow, the script sanded off many of the uneven edges to characters – filling in missing characteristics or toning down overly broad ones. Everyone felt like they had a purpose and motivation in the arc of the story, even if they were just in the film for a few scenes.
What Went Wrong?
Some Bits You Keep, Some Bits You Lose. The downside of narrative focus is that quite a lot hits the cutting room floor. Arguably, the little stuff is what makes A Wrinkle in Time such a perennial classic. Calvin’s issues with his mother (flipped into Dad issues in the film), Principal Jenkin’s slide from idealistic teacher to authoritarian figure (only hinted at), Meg and Charles Wallace’s uneasy relationship to their very conventional middle siblings (completely absent from the film). These subplots flesh out the world and are sadly missing – though I do like that Meg’s bully, Victoria, is given depth that resonates.
Just like missing people, missing places may upset fans. Certain aspects of each world have been jettisoned. The whole subplot with the planet Ixchel, where Meg convalesces after her stubborn self-hate nearly kills her, is gone. Besides making Meg’s interior struggle more concrete, it is the major part of the book where Calvin and Mr. Murray become interesting. Axing it stings less because it’s one more fantasy setting lost, but because it heavily handicaps any sympathy we could have built for Calvin or Meg’s dad.
Uneven Performances. I’m torn by the acting in the film. Storm Reid does a fine job as the lead, and several supporting characters were surprisingly wonderful. Jennifer Lee’s script really breathed some fresh life into characters who seemed like one-offs in the book like the Happy Medium. Unfortunately, it also ignored quite a few major characters. Since we don’t see Calvin being emotionally abused by a manipulative mother, and we don’t see Charles Wallace struggle with literal superhuman mental powers, they fail to resonate. The actors portraying them aren’t the strongest, so thin gruel and lack of star power make them utterly uninteresting.
Certain characters are written as eccentric, and performing them can be difficult. I didn’t think much of Reese Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling’s portrayal of the Misses until the very end when they actually got to act. Underdeveloped, vague roles tend to elicit overacting or underacting, which is exactly what we get respectively from Witherspoon and Kaling. Oprah and Chris Pine also feel like they are punching up slim roles, but have the firepower to handle it. Which brings us to the final critique…
Mismatched Tone. The whole ethos of DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time is of a grand battle. The film and press material constantly harped on “be a warrior for light!” Oprah says it so many times it becomes farcical. We constantly get female led fantasy where “write a strong female lead” turns into “give a girl a sword and armor.” Look at every damn Disney live action adaptation: Snow White and the Huntsman? Sword and armor. Alice Through the Looking Glass? Sword and armor. The Nutcracker? Sword and military uniform. It’s goddamned lazy, and sexist. We don’t need a female Rambo for her to be a strong and compelling lead!
The film gets L’Engle’s theme backwards, like looking through the wrong end of a telescope. In the book, Meg goes on a galactic adventure to overcome her very personal problems. Instead, we have Meg overcoming her personal problems in order to complete a galactic adventure. Everything needs to be punched up and aggrandized to fit the tone. Hell, they make Oprah six stories tall just to emphasis what a big deal this is. It all winds up feeling hollow since the resolution is small and personal.
How Bad is It?
Not bad at all. I actually really enjoyed DuVernay’s take on A Wrinkle in Time. It is beautiful and exciting. It keeps the central premise of the book while being its own animal. While I miss some of the parts left out, this version adds many wonderful new things that resonate with the source. The scene where Meg sees all of the hidden fears that motivate the people who are mean to her is a glorious and thoughtful extrapolation. It may have its flaws, but I loved this version.
A Wrinkle in Time is a weird and idiosyncratic book. I liken it to Frank Herbert’s Dune. The central plot – young person must overcome their personal limitations to become the person they are destined to be – is simple but expressed in such a one-of-a-kind setting and imaginative world that it is hard to visualize. Both works are also packed with heady ideas and intricate plots. For this reason, both have been called “unfilm-able.” Much like David Lynch’s take on Dune, A Wrinkle in Time is both too close and too far from the source to have widespread appeal. Casual viewers will goggle at the weirdness, while die-hard fans will think it is watered down. It’s a no win situation.
Hopefully history will reward DuVernay’s vision of L’Engle’s book as it has rewarded Lynch’s version of Herbert’s Dune. Both are filled with breathtaking ideas and visuals that take risks in a major studio project. It may not find mass appeal, but those who like bold and fearless fantasy should find themselves at home with DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time.