A Wrinkle in Time probably should have been an animated movie. Disney has had a better track record with animation when it comes to fantasy if we’re being honest, and it’s a shame to see a filmmaking team produce such a visually stunning movie trapped inside a vacuous bore of a screenplay.
The film is based on the 1962 book of the same name by Madeleine L’Engle. Director Ava DuVernay (Selma) and screenwriter Jennifer Lee (Frozen) have adapted this story—the first in a series—rather faithfully from what I remember of the source material, telling the tale of a 13-year-old girl named Meg (Storm Reid) who travels through space and time to find her father (Chris Pine) with the help of her two friends and a trio of inter-dimensional sorceresses, or “Ws” as they’re called.
The craft and artistry behind Wrinkle is its own worthwhile experience. Every planet, astral jump, and reality-bending set design has a sense of place and style harkening back to some of Disney’s most memorable animated locations. Except Wrinkle has more than just one Cave of Wonders or Atlantica to boast.
If only a film with this much visual talent and empowerment could have been…well, better. It turns out the spectacular designs in Wrinkle are consistently undermined by clumsy CGI animation with the footprint of a TV movie budget, especially when the live-action characters interact with the green screen around them. Shaky frame-rates, uncanny valleys, and seas of blurry goo continuously distract from otherwise gorgeous scenes.
This wouldn’t be too big of a problem if we managed to like the characters, but the script does this cast no favors. Dialogue in Wrinkle is painfully bad, even for a children’s film. Exposition and relentless world-building dominate every set piece until the film’s last breath, usually expressed by the “Ws” characters played by Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, and Mindy Kaling, whose personalities don’t go far beyond barely appealing quirks.
Which leads to the film’s biggest problem. It’s obviously designed to satisfy and inspire very young kids the most, at least judging by the juvenile script, corny performances, and simplistic humor. But if a film is meant to only be for kids young enough to appreciate all this, then why stuff it with pseudo-science exposition that makes little sense to adults? Meandering ideas and concepts are typically over-explained and spoken too flippantly to take seriously, so I can’t imagine young kids finding the film worthwhile beyond enjoying the animated backdrops and imagining themselves in this world, removed from what the movie is trying to tell them.
The performances don’t fare much better, mainly with the child actors. Meg excluded, these younger characters range from insipid to painfully annoying, akin to seeing kids act extemporaneously in a school play. It really does feel like a lot of these scenes were shot in just one or two takes, because there’s no sense of timing between exchanges. A character will say something basic, then an awkward pause, then a response that feels overwritten. And to be clear, most of the running time is spent watching these kids react to nonsensical explanations of what’s happening.
As for the story, they’ve updated it in some good ways, mainly by trimming some of the unnecessary elements and staying true to a lot of the plot. It’s a simple adventure, but mixed with science and fantasy, and the science bit is what’s always made Wrinkle stand out from other similar stories about young adult protagonists.
The message is the same, in that this is about resisting conformity and contributing to the “light” of the world, but a lot of the Christian allegories L’Engle wrote this story for are basically diminished for a more sanitized and generic point of view, which opens the film up to enjoyment for the most kids possible. I don’t blame Disney for this because the strategy is financially sound, but creatively, it leads to a somewhat dull experience because it takes out the author’s vision, what little of it there was, without replacing it with something equally specific or easy to grasp onto.
But this is a minor fault compared to far bigger problems, namely that Wrinkle is too preachy for a film with such an ill-defined worldview. It’s about good versus evil, sure, but vague names like “The IT” and “The Darkness” fade into the background while more complicated names like “Tesseract” just confuse, especially if you’re more familiar with the Marvel version of that term.
There’s a moment toward the end of the film that could have been the heavy hitter, a lesson Meg needs to learn about realizing her parents aren’t perfect, but the film absolutely bungles it and ends up sending a completely different and problematic message about adoption, weirdly enough. And it’s strange because the third act itself is tonally distant from the first two, in that it’s a bit weirder and darker, and arguably too intense for younger viewers. The real problem is that nothing before this tonal change sets the viewer up for this possibility, even though the movie absolutely could have used some weirder, darker flourishes, though I struggle to imagine what these charmless characters would have done to react amusingly.
When it comes to missed opportunities and squandered potential, I’m certain A Wrinkle in Time will persist as one of the clearest examples, especially from Disney. This movie had everything going for it from solid source material to a message about empowerment in front of and behind the camera. While you can’t fault any one aspect of the film for its overall failure, a lot of it can be pointed to a weak screenplay and equally weak direction out of the young actors. If you have confidence in your child’s attention span, then this one might be worth a look out of sheer visual merit alone, but this is definitely not a Disney movie for the easily bored.