A Wrinkle in Time: Dangerous Beauty, by David Bax
In a post-Game of Thrones world, it’s nice to be reminded that fantasy is generally considered a kid-friendly genre. That’s not to say there’s no danger to be found in Ava DuVernay’s bright, lush, universe-hopping A Wrinkle in Time; after all, what’s a fantasy movie without at least one narrow stone bridge with no railings? Mostly, though, this is a return to the kind of unmoored, afternoon daydream tween head trip of movies like Labyrinth, The NeverEnding Story and Time Bandits. Sure, there’s a healthy message in there and all but, more than anything, it’s just good, wonderful fun.
Storm Reid stars as Meg, the middle school-age daughter of two scientists (Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Chris Pine), one of whom—her father—went suddenly and inexplicably missing four years ago. Now she scoffs and skulks her way through life as a bullied introvert, only warming up for her precocious, possibly genius younger brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe). When it’s revealed that Charles Wallace (yes, they refer to him by both names throughout the movie and it’s way more charming than it sounds) has been secretly cavorting with three whimsical goddesses, an adventure begins as quickly and jarringly as it must feel for Meg. DuVernay wastes very little time before sending Meg, Charles Wallace and popular nice boy Calvin (Better Watch Out’s Levi Miller) through shimmering folds of space-time with Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey) in search of the missing father.
In our initial encounters with these magical ladies, something feels a bit off. It’s as if DuVernay is underselling the scale of their magnificence, almost like the movie is unimpressed with its own awesome elements. But soon, it becomes clear that this is intentional. For as long as we’re in Meg’s day to day world, the camera adopts her point of view. She’s skeptical and aloof and so the frame refuses to expand to fit these beings’ power. As far as it’s concerned, Mrs. Whatsit might just be a crazy lady in a puffy gown. Once we travel to another planet, though (by walking through undulating curtains in the æther, a process called “tessering”), Meg and the movie can no longer resist being staggered by the experience. Only then does DuVernay unleash the wonder she’s been holding at bay. Suddenly the camera is soaring or tilting back to take in as much as it can.
We are given more to hold onto than just our astonishment, though. A Wrinkle in Time is full of well-drawn and shaded characters, from our three main adventurers, geeky Meg (this movie belongs alongside The Martian with its populist, pro-science advocacy), bold Charles Wallace and selfless Calvin, to the Mrs. Ws (my favorite is Mrs. Whatsit, an ancient, immortal being with no patience) and beyond. Zach Galifianakis shows up as a testy but sincere New Age seer type. And Michael Peña, with his rococo moustache and seascape-colored suit, appears late to steal the show, which is what you cast Peña to do, as the creepiest kid-tempting movie monster since Pennywise.
A Wrinkle in Time’s ultimate message is, at least on the surface, pretty boilerplate “love yourself” fare, a common sentiment mostly because it’s such an important one. Just beneath that, though, is a moral that’s only a fraction more complex: Love other people, too, especially when they’ve run out of love for themselves. I’ve never read the source novel but now I’m betting the writers of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer season six finale had.
But, really, that kind of positivity is just gravy. What you’re really here to do is to see DuVernay filter Madeleine L’Engle’s imagination through her own while going ham on Disney’s budget. Lucky for us, she does so not just wondrously but also with eyes looking both forward and backward, to a more inclusive future and to a tradition of youth-oriented fantasy that’s not afraid to put kids in peril.