Back when I was in grade school, I read Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time for the first time. I found myself drawn not only to the character of Meg – the main viewpoint character of the novel – but also, as an autistic kid, I latched onto the character of Charles Wallace as well. That and the visuals the book evoked in my imagination made me hungry for an adaptation. Indeed, one of the first stage plays I went to in a theater (and in downtown Portland no less – on a field trip) was an adaptation of the book. While I enjoyed the play, its minimalist presentation had a mixed response from me.
When I learned Ava DuVernay was doing an adaptation of the book, I very much wanted to see it in theaters – and then life happened, in ways that ultimately meant I missed its fairly short theatrical run. However, the trailers looked promising, and I did want to see it at home – and they also made me think that DuVernay would be great for the New Gods movie she was slated to direct – before that was canceled. Well, now after a significant delay, I have finally watched the movie on streaming, and have my thoughts.
In terms of expectations and how I reacted to the film, my reaction was generally favorable. I generally liked the kids. Storm Reid as Meg and Derik McKabe as Charles Wallace in particular do a tremendous job. Reid conveys Meg’s initial insecurities and her growth into becoming more comfortable with herself – both her appearance and personality – over the course of the movie. McKabe also does a great job not only playing Charles Wallace, but also playing Charles Wallace controlled by the IT in the climax, and he absolutely nails both parts of the role – Charles Wallace’s own knowledge and emotional sensitivity, and the vindictive and sadistic voice of the IT
On the adult side of things, Chris Pine and Gugu Mbatha-Raw are great as the Murray parents (Alexander & Kate). Similarly, Michael Pena’s couple of scenes where he plays Red, a voice of the IT. Pena’s character goes beyond amiable menace to a cheerful – but not quite gleeful (there’s a difference) – and amiable menace. Also, there’s Zach Galifinakis as the Happy Medium and Oprah Winfrey as Mrs. Which. With the film swapping the Happy Medium’s gender, the script and performance also swapped the nature of the character’s personality. The read I always had on the female version in the book was the character as someone like Lorna Schlitzwistle from LoadingReadyRun’s QWERPline bits. Galifinakis’ version instead feels like a mildly snarky (but still supportive) yoga instructor – whose quips are mainly reserved for those who he knows is comfortable with them. Mrs. Which remains a sagacious figure and is generally the most together of the Three Missuses, but the script does do a pretty good job of deflating any sense of excessive self-importance with the character.
Where A Wrinkle In Time stumbles, I think, is with the other two Missuses – Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) and Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon). In the book and in the movie, Mrs. Who has gone without communicating with language long enough that she has a habit of deferring to quotes to convey points when she can’t find her own words. This worked for me in grade school but as executed here it feels a little twee, particularly because it’s played absolutely straight, even while the quotes are updated to some more recent figures (including Lin-Manuel Miranda). It feels like there’s a missed opportunity here for Mrs. Who, much as with Mrs. Witch, to reduce the level of self-importance by using some of the quotes as a conscious attempt at humor by the character – the closest we get to that is one of the quotes being from Outkast, but otherwise, it stops there.
Finally, there’s Mrs. Whatsit. If the problem with Mrs. Who was with the script, the problem with Mrs. Whatsit is with the performance. It feels like Witherspoon was going for a Johnny-Depp-As-Jack-Sparrow/Helena-Bonham-Carter-In-A-Tim-Burton-Film level of extra-ness. The problem is that a little bit of both those actors in that style of performance goes a tremendously long way, and she gets just a little bit too many of the comedic beats. I think if just a couple of the comedy bits had gone to another character (particularly Mrs. Who), and Witherspoon had just dialed it back a little, I think the film would have benefitted from that.
Otherwise, the visuals of A Wrinkle In Time work incredibly well. Further, DuVernay’s sense of framing is splendid, and she does a great job of keeping the visual effects from being overwhelming. Further, her version of Camazotz, especially with the visuals of suburban conformity as dystopian fascism, really encapsulated what I imagined when I first read the book.
Finally seeing this film really makes me more bummed that we have not yet gotten the chance to see DuVernay’s interpretation of Jack Kirby’s New Gods, and I do hope we get the chance to see her take on another similarly visually ambitious work in the future.
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