Thursday, March 8, 2018

'Wrinkle' neither folds nor soars

Visually abundant adaptation of popular novel falls short on wonder..
A New York Times article about the 90th edition of the Academy Awards referred to director Ava DuVernay (13th, Selma) as “one of Hollywood’s most aggressive advocates for diversity.” It only takes a few minutes of the big-screen adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time to know that DuVernay has no qualms about putting her convictions on screen.

A somewhat scattered, effects-laden adaptation of a popular novel by Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time stands as both an adventure fantasy and an overdue helping of diverse casting. Its story sends the child of an interracial couple into alternate universes along with her adopted brother and a white teenage boy.

That’s not to say that A Wrinkle in Time takes diversity as its theme. Like many of the Disney movies that precede it, Wrinkle is an ode to the importance of family, as well as a recasting of a typical hero’s journey.

The movie’s main character — a brainy 13-year-old named Meg (Storm Reid) — faces many tests as she tries to establish herself as a warrior for the light; i.e., all that is good in the universe.

DuVernay has said that her movie primarily aims at 12-year-olds and those able to get into a 12-year-old state of mind. As someone for whom 12 barely exists as a memory, I found the movie to be an elaborate helping of children’s theater that proved wanting at the point when it's supposed to reach its emotional crescendo and a little too vague about what constitutes evil in the movie’s visually abundant universe.

I also found the cosmology depicted in A Wrinkle in Time a bit confusing but that may not matter to young audiences willing to go with flow in order to enjoy the movie's various odd sights: a beach where a character who embodies evil (Michael Pena) turns up or a strange cave-like place that's home to Happy Medium (Zach Galifianakis), a character whose name explains his outlook.

Though it brims with varied settings and costumes, the core of A Wrinkle in Time hinges on a simplistic binary battle between the light and the dark, evil being represented by a spidery looking creation that resembles an ink blot.

Three other-worldly beings serve as guides for young Meg’s journey, which involves something called a “tesseract.” As best as I could discern — and with help from Wikipedia — the tesseract is a phenomenon that creates folds in the fabric of space and time, allowing Meg and her companions to travel through the fifth dimension.

These guides are women with (what else?) special powers. Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) can turn herself into what looks like a giant green leaf that carries the movie’s adventurers like a magic carpet. Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) is a walking Bartlett’s book of quotations; she dispenses the wisdom of others. Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey) seems to materialize out of nothing.

When we first meet Mrs. Which, she’s clad in silver and as tall as one of those balloons in a holiday parade, looming large over everyone else, a visual choice that mirrors Winfrey’s status in the real-life world of media.

Meg’s interplanetary journey is motivated by a devastating loss. Her father (Chris Pine) has been missing for four years as the result of a quest to explore the furthest reaches of the galaxy. Meg was left to make do with her mom (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and her brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe).

Meg journeys into other worlds to locate her scientist father and bring him home because, as we long ago learned from the The Wizard of Oz, no matter how intoxicating alternate realities can be, there’s no place like home.

Levi Miller portrays Calvin O’Keefe, a popular teenager who joins outcast Meg on her trippy pursuits, but his character doesn't seem to have much of a role beyond adding someone with whom younger boys may identify.

First seen in Twelve Years A Slave, Reid provides the movie with a solid center. Initially annoying, McCabe’s Charles Wallace grew on me, particularly when his body was taken over by the IT, a disembodied evil that turns him from a brainiac into a painiac.

The movie’s production team does a good job creating wavy wrinkles in time as Meg travels in the fifth dimension, and the movie certainly doesn't lack for other forms of visual invention. My favorite: a rigidly conformist suburban community where every kid stands in a driveway bouncing a beach ball in unison, a twisted idea of playtime.

I suppose the best fantasies create a sense of wonder that Wrinkle in Time can't quite achieve. It's probably not the keenest of critical insights or the heartiest of endorsements, but after a preview screening and a little reflection, I'd say the movie qualifies as "OK." I'd be lying if I didn't say I was hoping for more.

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