A Wrinkle in Time (***) is best when it avoids fawning

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A Wrinkle In Time – 2018

Director Ava DuVernay
Screenplay Jennifer Lee, Jeff Stockwell based on the book by Madeline L’Engle
Starring  Storm Reid, Deric McCabe, Levi Miller, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Michael Peña, Zach Galifianakis, Chris Pine

My daughter wanted to get out of the house. She’d been sick all week and she really just wanted to go to the Target near the mall. She knows I am a sucker for movies, so she said she’d go see one with me. I showed her what was available. She hesitated between this movie and Black Panther. I had seen the latter and was willing to see it again. She winced, looking like she was settling, and said A Wrinkle In Time.

She didn’t want to see either of them all that much, but there wasn’t much to choose from for an 11-year-old. She isn’t into action movies and the word back about Wrinkle from her friends whose mothers had forced them to see it was “meh.” 

Anything to get out of the house.

The movie started out in a fine, dreamlike state with a father (Pine) and his daughter experiencing the wonder of science and later, with her mother (the beautiful Mbatha-Raw) pondering love and the universe.

Cut to years later, and the same girl (Reid) is older and has been without her father for 4 years. He just disappeared one night.

We get glimpses of a miserable life for Meg Murry and a slightly more optimistic view from her young and brilliant brother Charles Wallace (McCabe). We get hints of what happened to her father through whispers and taunts. Her mother is sad but valiant.

Charles Wallace welcomes a stranger (Witherspoon), Mrs. Whatsit in as a friend. Soon enough we are introduced to a fellow Mrs. Who (Kaling). Not long after that, we see Mrs. Which (Oprah) arriving on the scene (with no sense of irony) literally the size of a house.

I knew we were in trouble when my daughter El asked to go get some popcorn. She hadn’t wanted any before we arrived to the film. As soon as the Mrs.’s Whatsit, Who and Which started spewing their whimsical nonsense, my daughter was bored as any one who isn’t a member of the renowned one’s book of the month club.

The fawning of the actors towards their hero is a little too subtle for the kids to appreciate or care. The interactions with these stand in godmothers is bland. It’s filled with the kinds of things the mothers from the soccer set might tell their children they learned from Dr. Phil. Even though each of the actors seem to have a Stepford gleam in their eye when they’re  given advice from Oprah’s Which, my kid was crawling all over her seat. So I let her go get popcorn.

While she was gone, we learn a little more about what happened to the erstwhile father. It’s more exposition than science. Since the scenes involve the rest of the cast a little more, they’re welcome. El arrived back to more yammering between the three godmothers, so she promptly went to the bathroom.

When she returned this time, she saw the three old ladies giving Meg, Charles and new friend Calvin (Miller) advice on how to survive without them, and the movie starts to pick up a bit.

Even if it doesn’t make much sense, the story of the kids journey is entertaining. The Which tells the kids to stay together in the bad zone. Naturally that’s the point we stop seeing the three of them on the screen together for more than a few beats through the end of the film.

This is all rendered neutral by some sweet scenes in the last half hour. Especially when our heroine understands the true purpose of accepting one’s faults, forgiving others and knowing the value of family.

“I wanted to shake hands with the universe,” Dr. Murry says to Megan, “I should have been holding my daughter’s hand.”

Reid is fine, and very aptly cast.  She is held back having to wait for the wonder of the less interesting godmothers, who are all either miscast, poorly drawn or just boring. When it’s just the kids, things go better, especially when left to their own devices against the demonic Red (played by Oyelowo and more interestingly Peña).

DuVernay, who directed the excellent Selma, is hamstrung here in her forced deference to the trio of the god like fairies. The film loses on all fronts with the Mrs.’s. Kaling is boring. Witherspoon is unconvincing and silly.

Oprah is…well, just the talk show host. Too bad she’s not close to the fine actress she is in The Color Purple. It’s a shame when someone reaches a status when they seem so beyond criticism they cease being relatable. DuVernay made me care about everyone who was in the shadow of MLK in Selma. One would think she’d be the perfect person to cast a light beyond the shadow of the media superstar.

This is not an indictment of the talent of Ava as a director. It’s not that she faded this time round. There was probably enough pressure on her shoulders covering this well liked children’s book. To make her have to maneuver around the albatross is obviously a bridge too far, even if she’ll never publicly admit it.

As for El, she survived the film’s 1:48 running time, and even enjoyed the last act. She liked seeing kids her own age solve problems and didn’t think she needed to see as much of the old people. I think she has a point.

(*** out of *****) for both El and CPE

 

 

 

 

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