A Wrinkle In Time: All You Need Is Love (and CGI)

Hello, everyone! I’ve returned from my hiatus destroying the Iran deal and cancelling the North Korean Summit to tell you guys some important news: A Wrinkle In Time wasn’t that bad. Mired in flaws, including cheesy character design, an over bloated, “Disney-fied” second act, and the very essence of Charles WallaceWrinkle still managed to forgo Disney’s formula for chemically engineered joy in favor of a sincere message about family love and the power of self-esteem. In a market where shiny cynicism sells, this type of sentimentality can be enough to sink a children’s movie, but Wrinkle’s confidence in its candid message elevates it beyond other Disney live-action adaptations. Even with the  stench of Disney’s greed on every frame, I could tell the movie was really trying its best. For quality, I give the movie a frowny face. But for effort? Gold star.

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Synopsis: After the disappearance of her father Alex Murry, a brilliant physicist, 13-year-old Meg becomes moody and withdrawn, failing her classes and earning detention for clashing with the school’s mean girls. One night, she and her precocious little brother Charles Wallace are visited by Mrs. Whatsit, a mystical being from another dimension who has been “called” to help find Meg’s father. Although Meg is at first hesitant, the prodding of Mrs. Whatsit and her colleagues Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which convince her to travel with her brother and their new friend Calvin on a multi-dimensional search for her father. On the way, they learn of The It, an all-powerful evil who might be holding Alex Murry captive. In order to rescue her father, Meg must confront a galactic evil, as well as the evil inside herself.

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My take: I’ve never seen Ava DuVernay’s other films, but this film left me curious about her directorial style. Wrinkle appears to be a clash between a personal director’s aesthetic and the typical Disney palette, and a clash between character and world-building. When DuVernay focuses on the characters, she creates some stunning imagery. She first introduces us to Meg as she lies awake in a thunderstorm, the frame colored in melancholy blues and greys. As the camera sweeps by her face, the audience can immediately feel the storm of emotions in Meg’s mind.

DuVernay knows how to pack emotion into a frame with simple imagery. A few images that stand out to me: the spectacle of chaos and conformity at the beach on Camazotz, a despondent Alex Murry bathed in neon orange in his Tron-esque prison cell, the expression on Meg’s face when she reunites with her father. These moments ring the truest to me in a movie otherwise slathered with expensive, yet cheap looking CGI. When Wrinkle is a character-driven piece, it shines. But when it’s forced to be a vehicle for Disney’s whimsical fantasy world, it stumbles under the weight.

What Wrinkle suffers from most is over-design. The phrase “less is more” applies perfectly to the film. The Mrs. W’s are the worst offenders, like the costume department hired a high school theater student, gave them $30 million in glitter and rhinestones, and told them to go crazy. Although aesthetically I liked some of the outfits (mostly Mrs. Who’s), they lack verisimilitude. Good costumes are supposed to  support the character’s personality, not completely draw away from it. The costumes for the Mrs. W’s look more similar to an Alexander McQueen fashion show than the wardrobe of mystical multi-dimensional creatures. The same goes for Zach Galifianakis’ oracle character, who looks like a Portland hipster, and The Red Eyed Man.

With source material as novel as A Wrinkle in Time, these characters deserved innovative costuming, but instead they were given glittery eyebrows and outrageous hairstyles and sent to film. Perhaps if the characters themselves were better written, this costuming wouldn’t be such a glaring error, but the Mrs. W’s have such awkward dialogue that their outfits just draw more attention to how out of place they seem in their own film.

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What are they wearing?! Why would Mrs. Which have foil eyebrows?

Another example of over-design is in the second act, when the Mrs. W’s bring the children to a planet called Uriel to begin their search for their father. From the time the kids set foot on Uriel to when they first land in Camazotz, the movie falls apart. Uriel is a mess of Disney tropes: rolling emerald green hills, anthropomorphic flowers, a “breathtaking” flight scene over the beautiful countryside, etc, etc. Mrs. Whatsit changes into a plant/dragon/stick bug hybrid for absolutely no reason besides a chance for Disney to show off its CGI. And then they go to the oracle, who lives on a planet with floating Avatar rocks (because those are still all the rage even 7 years later), so we can see another extended CGI montage.

Disney seems to be under the impression that no movie is complete without these sequences of adventure and spectacle, even when they’re completely out of place in the movie. Not only did the sequence on Uriel barely advance the plot, but it also broke the serious, melancholy tone of the film. And from what I’ve read of the book’s plot, the flying scene wasn’t in the book, so it was purely made by Disney to give us movie-goers what we really want, i.e more meaningless CGI in place of fulfilling character development.

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UGH

Fortunately, the jump to Camazotz in the third act restores the film’s potential. All of the saccharine nonsense is replaced with eerie chaos. Was it original? Perhaps not. I’m not sure if the conformist neighborhood scene was in the original book, but it looked a lot like this Stromae video. Even so, the scenes on Camazotz bring the focus of the film back to the character, namely Meg’s inner battle to accept her faults and learn to love herself. Storm Reid is a fantastic actress for being so young, and she handles Meg’s complexity perfectly. Her battle to protect Charles Wallace and save her father brought tears to my eyes. Although the last twenty minutes of the film were a tear-jerker, they never felt fake like Finding Dory or even Coco. Reid made me believe in Meg’s love for her power-consumed brother and absent father. If DuVernay accomplished only one great thing in Wrinkle, it was Meg’s character arc, and that was enough for me to enjoy the film.

There were some other flaws in the film that I attribute to a conversion from book to screen. For one, I found Charles Wallace’s character to be insufferable. I’m sure he came across as a more sympathetic character in the novel, but it’s very difficult to write a genius kindergartner on film without him sounding like a screechy little adult (see also the Jacob Tremblay problem). Second, the adaptation of the Mrs. W’s was atrocious. Reese Witherspoons’ Mrs. Whatsit was shrill and all of her comedic lines fell flat. Mindy Kaling’s Mrs. Who was shot in the foot from the beginning since her character was only able to use the words of famous authors to speak. This could have been cool, but the writers had to update Mrs. Who’s lingo and have her say things from Outkast. Her dialogue was so dated I cringed hearing her. And then there was Mrs. Which, poor foil-eyebrowed Oprah, whose only job was to be mystical and wise and boring. I don’t know how the screenwriter managed to take three powerhouse actresses and transform them into some of the most annoying female characters ever onscreen, but they did. Madeleine L’Engle is surely turning in her grave. Just look at how awkward this scene is:

I’m not usually one for huge revisions in a page-to-screen adaptation, but I think DuVernay’s Wrinkle could have benefitted from one. The Mrs. W’s characters do not translate well in this adaptation, so I think they should have been given far less screen time. The second act needed to be trimmed to the bare minimum necessary to bring Meg and the other kids to Camazotz. And as for Charles Wallace, I’m not sure what would have helped besides a more sympathetic child actor.

Final Consensus: A Wrinkle in Time is not a perfect adaptation of its source material. It suffers from Disney’s obsession with CGI and spectacle-based fantasy, and has difficulty adapting iconic characters for the big screen. However, it succeeds when it focuses on the novel’s core themes of love and acceptance. The film is frustrating to watch and at times ridiculous, but its third act is restrained and heart-felt. That alone makes Wrinkle worth the watch.

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