The most important thing to know about director Ava DuVernay’s film adaptation of A Wrinkle In Time—the beloved children’s sci-fi book about time travel, tesseracts, and a dog named Fortinbras—is that it’s meant to appeal primarily to children, with jokes and a few nods for their handlers sprinkled in as an afterthought. This isn’t the type of children’s movie that aims for maturity or cynicism in a way that attracts adults; it’s one that compels you to do the opposite and be a kid again, and your patience for such will inform how much you enjoy it.
The story is more or less the same: Meg Murry (Storm Reid) lives with her mother Kate (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and her brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe). Absent from the movie’s narrative are the book’s dastardly, rude twin brothers, Sandy and Dennys, though their bullying and general rudeness seems to be baked into a multicultural cast of mean girls who are just one facet of Meg’s problems. Meg’s father, Alex (Chris Pine) has been missing for four years and no one knows why. It turns out that he traveled by tesseract—the titular wrinkle in time—to another planet and has been held captive by the IT (not the Information Technology department, nor the rude clown in the gutters of Maine), and needs to be rescued.
Guiding Meg, Charles Wallace, and Meg’s friend Calvin (Levi Miller) are the three women whose faces have been splashed across city buses, movie posters: Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) has red hair, talks a lot, and does her best with what she’s given—she’s zippy, sharp enough, and perky. Mrs. Which (Mindy Kaling) wears a lot of jewel tones and speaks mostly in quotations from Rumi, Shakespeare, Buddha, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Chris Tucker. The big Mrs. is Mrs. Who, played by Oprah Winfrey, resplendent in sequined gowns and gorgeous blonde wigs, who looms literally larger than life over the motley crew, delivering Oprah-isms through glittered lips. They look fantastic, but are introduced rather haphazardly—when it’s time for the adventures to begin, Mrs. Whatsit plops down in the backyard unceremoniously and alerts the children that it’s time to go. We’re supposed to feel excited because this is the heart of the movie, but without any real lead-up to this adventure, it’s hard to muster the enthusiasm.
Onward the children go, tripping through the tesseract in a CGI sequence that will make a lovely ride at Disneyland, and falling head-first into various adventures and mishaps, including a brief meeting with the Happy Medium (Zach Galifinakis), whose lines are basically repackaged sentiments from a yoga teacher, and the more evil and less helpful Red (Michael Peña), who the children inexplicably encounter on an extremely crowded beach. He’s wearing a loud short suit and various bits of facial hair and manages to hypnotize the young Charles Wallace into letting IT—elucidated in a montage as the force responsible for shitty parents, disordered eating, and low self-esteem—inhabit his body and use it for evil. Later on, in her journey to find her father within the wrinkles of the universe, there’s a fight sequence between Meg and what looks to be the CGI root system of some massive tree.
While it’d be difficult to cram in everything L’Engle wrote (Aunt Beast, I miss you dearly), presenting some sort of framework for understanding the plot’s central motor—the tesseract—would have made the plot less (sorry) wrinkled. The physics of a tesseract are explained succinctly in the novel, but the movie presents the theory as an inherent acceptance without necessary explanation. This is the nature of children’s books, fairytales, and fantasies—the unexplained happens in the blink of an eye—but it leads to a rather uneven narrative. DuVernay leans on CGI and good-natured, earnest platitudes about being yourself and loving yourself in equal measure: Reese Witherspoon’s Mrs. Whatsit transforms herself into a flying piece of decorative kale and takes the kids for a ride five minutes before she tells Meg that her greatest strengths are her faults.
Still, for its intended audience, it mostly works. Diversity, sprinkled throughout the film with care, is intentional yet feels natural. When Meg heads into the principal’s office for throwing a basketball in the face of a Tina Fey-style Mean Girl named Veronica, the camera lingers for a moment on her younger brother, Charles Wallace, sitting with legs crossed, mirroring the photo of James Baldwin hung directly to his left. Later, when the children make it to Cazmatoz, the kids in the eerie cul-de-sac bouncing their balls in hypnotic rhythm are not all white. Meg is biracial, the child of Mbatha-Raw and Pine, and her adopted brother is Filipino. It’s refreshing to see a movie where attempts at diversity feel less like ticking boxes and more like real life.
There’s a lot riding on the shoulders of DuVernay’s adaptation, based on its pedigree alone: DuVernay, beloved director, a black woman, taking on source material so rich that to do it justice would likely blow the $100 million budget for this film out of the water. Creating a faithful cinematic retelling of the story is a near impossible task, so DuVernay did the next best thing, taking the skin of L’Engle’s story and stretching it over a skeleton made of CGI and the power of Oprah’s lacefront eyebrows. There’s no need to soften the bad parts about it. The movie is thematically broad yet uneven, visually stunning at times, and most of all presents a clear-cut message of acceptance, love, and empowerment that will certainly resonate with its intended audience: young girls at their most vulnerable age. The proper viewing experience is one where an adult leaves their cynicism outside and tries to experience the movie as its own sort of time travel back to middle school, high school, or whenever it was that the world felt the most cruel.