A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle’s 1962 novel about a brother and sister who travel between dimensions to find their missing father, is a charming science fantasy adventure. It focuses on a young woman who uses her intelligence and empathy to overcome impossible and fantastical obstacles while somehow remaining relatable. Perhaps the most valuable aspect of the book, though, is how it encourages young readers to use their imaginations to give form to the incredible creatures and environments L’Engle presents them with. The text acts as a guide: allowing the mind to see the world in any multitude of ways. The only limit is the creativity of the reader, and for children that can be a very powerful thing.
1962, it should be noted, was a time in which young people tended to read with far more frequency than they do today. It seems that, in 2018, the trend is for entertainment to do the thinking for its audience rather than demanding even a moderate level of effort or investment. This contrast is the crux of A Wrinkle in Time’s greatest failure. It provides its viewers with pretty colors and enough commotion to keep them awake, but its determination to explain every single plot point to death for fear of losing anyone along the way robs even the youngest children of a chance to think for themselves.
Of course, some of this is unavoidable when translating novels into films. Without the visual component, the reader’s mind automatically picks up the slack on that front, so it stands to reason that when definitive images are brought to the table, the audience need not work as hard. Even so, I’ve seen my fair share of adaptations, and few others have given me so strong an impression that the filmmakers thought I was too stupid to understand anything that was going on.
Even if I were to disregard A Wrinkle in Time’s lack of faith in its audience, it would be impossible to ignore the quality of the performances. Every single actor turns in a stupefyingly terrible showing, with the exception of Oprah Winfrey, who is given the one passage of the entire script with any substance, and even manages to act through her bedazzled eyebrows. Even seasoned performers like Reese Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling are shockingly weak. Witherspoon, in particular, seems to be under the assumption that if the target audience is children, then nobody will notice her phoning it in.
I hesitate to criticize child actors too severely, both because any acting I’ve ever done, be it in my childhood or later, is less pleasant to watch than an ice pick lobotomy and has about the same effect on the brain, and because they’ve not had the benefit of experience or extensive training on the level of any adult actor. Even so, I cannot give a free pass to the kids in A Wrinkle in Time.
Without being unnecessarily harsh, Levi Miller looks confused by everything and reads his lines directly from the script with all of the emotion of a boy in a mandatory middle school play for Mothers Day. Storm Reid manages to be convincing in a handful of scenes, but mostly just looks blankly at the camera and flatly states each line of dialogue.
The most difficult performance for me to critique is sadly also the worst. Deric McCabe, the boy who plays Charles Wallace, absolutely chews up the scenery and steals hearts in every scene. He has more charisma at age nine than I’ll have at forty-nine, and his energy is infectious. He’s also the most cringe-worthy character in the entire film. His delivery is forced, and he has trouble playing any emotion other than indomitable optimism. The script hardly does him any favors, and asks more of him than any other actor, demanding that he switch between being an excitable little boy and the megalomaniacal force of all evil in the universe within a short window of time. Given a couple of years and a better script, Young Mr. McCabe could be a fine actor, but the weight put on him by A Wrinkle in Time does a disservice to both him and the film at large.
In my recent review of Thoroughbreds, I said that A Wrinkle in Time looked like a “bloated CGI nightmare,” and I can now report that I was painfully correct in that interpretation. Between distractingly poor green screen effects and the nightmare-inducing moment where Reese Witherspoon turns into a dragon made of seaweed, I would say that the film hardly benefits from its effects-focused approach. Furthermore, none of the vistas manage to come anywhere near something like 2009’s Avatar, which as those of you adept at math have no doubt deduced, came out just shy of a decade ago. If a film is going to feature an abundance of computer-generated environments, then at the very least they ought to be somewhat memorable.
Despite all of A Wrinkle in Time’s shortcomings, it does have one extraordinary strength that comes surprisingly close to outweighing its plentiful weaknesses; it has a massive, unbridled heart. This is a film that, with full integrity and seriousness, says that loving with enough purity can not only transport you across the universe but change that universe forever. At many times, it almost seems to be daring you to pit your cynicism against its unashamed optimism, as if to say that denying stories of hope and love makes you no better than the darkness against which its characters fight.
Maybe this isn’t a film for cynics, but I don’t think it takes a cynical mind to see that, no matter the filmmakers’ intentions, A Wrinkle in Time plays like a $100 million Disney Channel movie. The production design is kooky but hardly inspired, the CG is lackluster, the performances are horrendous, and the script caused my eyes to roll hard enough to induce a headache. As a movie for young children, I can see it being entertaining and maybe even inspiring, but in the wake of Coco, it’s hard not to be frustrated by Disney’s obvious assumptions about the audience’s comprehension abilities. If you’ve got kids and free time, there are worse ways to spend a few hours, but there’s just north of nothing to enjoy under any other circumstances.