WASHINGTON — Madeleine L’Engle’s 1962 novel has captivated young readers for decades.
This weekend, “A Wrinkle in Time” becomes a star-studded movie directed by Ava DuVernay, who becomes the first African-American woman to direct a $100-million movie, a deserving distinction after such masterpieces as the biopic “Selma” and the documentary “13th.”
“I wanted to shift genres after ‘Selma’ and ’13th,'” DuVernay says in a special message to the audience before the movie starts, urging us to experience the movie through a child’s eyes.
Such a request is possible to varying degrees in a fantasy flick that’s consistently magical, admirably earnest, admittedly bizarre and borderline confusing for young audiences.
Meg Murry (Storm Reid) is an unpopular kid who’s picked on at school about her scientist father (Chris Pine), who disappeared while exploring the mysteries of the universe. Leaning on her single mom (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), precocious brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) and new puppy-love beau Calvin (Levi Miller), Meg embarks on a journey to save her father from an alternate dimension, navigated by a trio of magical beings who can wrinkle time.
Like any kids’ movie, the film’s success hinges largely on the abilities of its child stars. Here, Storm Reid is up to the challenge, giving us a shining example for young girls who consider themselves misfits. As strong as she is, she is often upstaged by Deric McCabe, who steals the show as her wiz kid brother, until he goes full-on Gage from “Pet Sematary” (1989).
These kids are our proxies amidst the three magical beings, Whatsit, Who and Which, who sound like an Abbott & Costello routine. Reese Witherspoon dazzles as Mrs. Whatsit, shape shifting into a flying creature like “The Never Ending Story;” Mindy Kaling spits famous quotes as Mrs. Who, ranging from Shakespeare to Gandhi to Outkast; and Oprah Winfrey offers pearls of wisdom as Mrs. Which, playing her with an angelic presence akin to Della Reese.
It’s here that production designer Naomi Shohan shows her stuff with wild wigs, lavish costumes and glittery makeup, the tangible artifice within the digital canvas. The first planet we visit is the candy-colored Uriel, featuring charming CGI flowers. Next is the underground Happy Medium, where Zach Galifianakis fittingly dresses in “earth tones.” Finally, we reach the evil Camazotz with a suburban nightmare, a tempting beach and a chaotic cosmos finale.
Along the way, DuVernay tries to imprint her directorial stamp, opening with a distorted view through a glass bottle, then using a piece of origami with an unfolding heart to show that love is always around, even when we can’t see it. This carries into a larger social commentary with a montage narrated by Oprah, suggesting that a dark force called the “IT” is tapping into people’s worst fears. “We must keep hope,” she says. It’s well-meaning, but heavy-handed.
That’s perhaps the best way to describe the movie — its heart is in the right place, but it wears its heart on its sleeve rather than unfolding beneath the surface. As characters speak on-the-nose dialogue — particularly a pair of school staffers overhead gossiping on the playground — we adults wish that the script didn’t have to dumb down the dialogue for kids.
On the flip side, the plot may be confusing for young viewers. As we jump from place to place, the transitions feel like non-sequiturs that are hard to follow for adults, let alone kids. By the time we reach Meg’s epiphany, we’re not quite sure how she makes the mental leap from origami to create physical platforms to jump. I can also imagine kids asking, “Mommy, why is Charles Wallace being mean to his sister?” Have fun explaining that one, parents.
These scattered results are less the fault of DuVernay and screenwriters Jennifer Lee (“Frozen”) and Jeff Stockwell (“Bridge to Terabithia”) than the source material, which has always been odd. Some stories work far better in literature than on the screen, as the screenwriters scrap necessary connecting tissue to trim the runtime down to two hours.
And so, “A Wrinkle In Time” the movie isn’t destined to become a classic like the book. But if you’re simply looking for something to distract the kids for two hours, it will do for now.