It seemed a bit odd when Ava DuVernay was announced as the director of Disney’s adaptation of Madeline L’Engle’s seminal children’s fantasy novel A Wrinkle in Time. DuVernay built her Hollywood stock on the back of Selma and 13th, films rooted in race relations in America and marked by a no-nonsense realism. Her rather public (but by no means acrimonious) rejection of Disney’s offer to direct Black Panther seemed to indicate a desire to eschew big budget major studio franchise filmmaking. So for her to settle on A Wrinkle in Time (making her the first African-American female director to helm a 9 figure budget movie) as her first narrative feature since SELMA seems on the surface like an off-kilter choice. The film has the full muscle of the Mouse House behind it, occupying the spot in the calendar that saw Beauty and the Beast rake in over $500 million at the domestic box office last year. And it’s tough to imagine being further divorced from the ground than L’Engle’s heady epic, a melange of time travel, wormholes and shape shifting godlike beings. How DuVernay would respond to both the challenge and the increased scrutiny would be fascinating to see.
On its surface, it seems to be clear that DuVernay is committed to avoid being swallowed up by the studio system with A Wrinkle in Time. Beginning with a flashback to a simpler time that saw Dr. Alexander Murry (Chris Pine) instilling a love for science in his daughter, Meg. The film then moves four years into the future to find Meg (Storm Reid) has lost her way in life due to the disappearance of her father. Her mother (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and precocious adopted brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) hold out hope that Dr. Murry is out there somewhere, but that hope becomes something a bit more when an eccentric stranger, Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) appears at the house, claiming to have knowledge about her missing father’s whereabouts. With the help of Mrs. Whatsit’s two companions, Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), Meg, Charles Wallace and Meg’s classmate Calvin (Levi Miller) set off on a journey across space and time to reunite her family.
A Wrinkle in Time seems content following in the footsteps of other colorful fantasy adaptations of famous works like Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland or Sam Raimi’s Oz: The Great and Powerful (or the more lavish set pieces of Beauty and the Beast). And like those films, this one seems destined to compete in Academy Award categories like Production Design, Hair and Makeup, Costume Design and even potentially Cinematography, with DP Tobias A. Schliessler (who shot Beauty and the Beast) making sure his camera captures all the splendor the cast and crew has brought to the table. The visual approach is heavy on close-ups, zooms and focus pulls, making it look rather unorthodox compared to what has become a pretty well established style. Even as films seek to broaden the look of what can be done in high profile Disney films, their camera work is rarely as exciting as what is seen here. Add in the wild, colorful costumes and imaginative sets, and A Wrinkle in Time is a visual feast that consistently entertains the eye.
The script, though, is a pretty big detriment to the proceedings. It’s clear screenwriting team Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell wanted to ensure no one would be lost in the little nooks and crannies of this admittedly confounding world, and some of the dialogue, especially early on, isn’t too concerned with flowering up the exposition. Mrs. Whatsit’s explanation of what’s going on and the description of the Tesseract is only a little more exciting than reading a detailed manual on how to set your VCR clock, and it makes for a borderline tedious first act at times. DuVernay does what she can to spice things up (exposition is a bit easier to swallow when it comes from a giant Oprah Winfrey towering over the rest of the cast), and once the ball is rolling enough to start picking up some downhill momentum, things smooth out and the directness of the scripting becomes a smaller and smaller issue.
It helps that the two young actors tasked with providing the film’s emotional resonance are so successful in doing so. There’s a lot of pressure on both Reid and McCabe, though Reid is clearly the emotional core and McCabe often gets to skate by on playing the “precocious youth” card. Perhaps the script puts too much emphasis on Meg, making the rest of the world practically unimportant despite the seemingly apocalyptic villain she must face to find her father. But DuVernay does well getting the sort of performance she needs out of her young star, which helps push some of the more flawed aspects of the story to the background.
That does seem like the best way to describe A Wrinkle in Time: it’s a case of Ava DuVernay elevating a rather drab script to something significantly more than the sum of its parts. Like many challenging films before it (your Fear and Loathing in Las Vegases, your Inherent Vices), most considered this beloved novel to be unfilmable. And it’s easy to see why. There’s so much to consider, so much to cover, with everything so divorced from reality that it’s tough to avoid characters just telling you what you need to know, which isn’t the most exciting way to mount a movie. A Wrinkle in Time is not a great movie when all things are considered, but it does make it pretty clear that Ava DuVernay is still a great director, capable of making a script that’s a bit too bland and rough around the edges into something that is at the very least intermittently captivating. It’s easy to imagine this becoming just another poorly conceived, garishly colored Disney blockbuster like Alice in Wonderland with a failing pulse that flops onto the screen like a dead fish. But DuVernay’s too good to let that happen, managing to make a film entertaining enough to be worth a sit. That’s not the highest praise, but it’s pretty impressive considering what she is working with here.