“It was a dark and stormy night.” That’s the first sentence of Madeline L’Engle’s 1962 fantasy novel A Wrinkle in Time, a smoke-screen opening salvo that doesn’t begin to prep readers for what lies ahead in this beloved kids’ book: tesseracts and shape-shifting biddies, shadowy forces and M.I.A. fathers, interdimensional travel and preternaturally genius preteens and the revolutionary notion that a young woman can save the world. From such simple, mundane beginnings spring the skeleton keys that unlock imaginations, and if you can say nothing else about Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of this middle school curriculum staple, it most definitely taps into a childlike sense of what-if wonder. What if a run-of-the-mill misfit kid like Meg Murry (Storm Reid) had the power to stop evil from taking over? What if the neighborhood’s crazy cat ladies were really time-tripping celestial beings? What if you took a lot of corporate money and made a genuinely odd, hallucinogenic movie that featured youngsters flying through a candy-colored landscape on a leathery cabbage?
And: What if a major blockbuster property was made by a woman of color? It’s not a question we should still have to be asking in 2018, and thankfully, we no longer have to. The story behind Wrinkle‘s waltz to the screen has arguably eclipsed the film itself, and it’d be disingenuous not to acknowledge what a big deal it is that DuVernay – and not, say, some white twentysomething male with one decent Sundance movie under his belt – has been handed the reins to this massive endeavor. There’s never been a question as to whether she’s a major filmmaker: Middle of Nowhere (2012) should be taught in film schools on how to make a perfect intimate indie, and Selma (2014) is one of the best biopics made by anybody in the last 20 years, full stop. It was simply whether the barrier-breaking accomplishment would, in the end, outweigh the end-result achievement. This Wrinkle in Time is undoubtedly flawed, wildly uneven and apt to tie itself in narrative knots in a quest to wow you with sheer Technicolor weirdness. It’s also undeniably DuVernay’s movie as much as Disney’s, and works best when she puts her feminine energy, high-flying freak flag and sense of empathy front and center.
So yes, join Meg and her brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) on that dark and stormy night, as they welcome a visitor named Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) into their household. Mom (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is understandably confused as to why this cheerful eccentric has shown up unannounced in her living room; she’s also shocked to be told that “tesseracts” are real, given that her husband (Chris Pine) had been preaching about a time-travel concept with that very name before he mysteriously disappeared. The siblings begin to wonder whether the woman knows where their dad is. They’re soon joined by dreamy neighborhood teen Calvin (Levi Miller) and Mrs. Whatsit’s daffy companion, the quote-spewing Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) – for once, Who’s on second and Whats(it)’s on first. As for third base, that would be the divine being that towers over all of them and calls the shots. Unsurprisingly, she looks just like Oprah.
From the moment Winfrey’s gigantic earth mother starts making a backyard bend and ripple like a disturbed waterbed, Wrinkle begins toggling between very familiar multiplex fodder and a sort of Fischer-Price’s My First Acid Trip. Between Naomi Shohan’s production design, which spans everything from Seussian fantasias to slate-grey wastelands to a beach filled with enough Day-Glo to blind an outer borough, and Paco Delgado’s extraordinary everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink costume design, the movie’s visual template tends to favor a lysergic sense of excess. (We sincerely hope Kaling got to keep those Spongebob-square ruffled pantaloons.) Bizarre touches abound, from the questionable – sure, why not make an oracle Zach Galifianakis in guyliner! – to the inspired, like a creepy suburban nightmare of 1950s conformity, bouncing balls and dead-eyed kids.
Whether these genuinely offbeat, brain-melting scenarios actually sync up with Frozen writer Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell’s script, however, is where we start to find ourselves on even shakier ground than our protagonists. You’re never sure whether you’re watching a psychedelic, “difficult” science fiction movie hidden inside a Disney kids’ movie or vice versa – and you’re never sure if the movie’s ambitious attempt to serve both of those masters is a feature or a bug. The result is indeed an eyeful, an earful, a handful, but one that’s hard not to feel is dotted with collateral damage. DuVernay has reclaimed and rejiggered the concept of hero’s journey by recasting it for a young black woman, which is no small feat (and, it bears repeating, a necessity). Yet her star Storm Reid and the story itself seem to keep getting relegated and/or faded into the background at key moments, whether from sensory overload or stock moments like a shadow monster named “The IT” mounting a climactic CGI attack. No amount of Oprah’s self-affirmations can stave off the feeling that there’s tug of war going on here.
DuVernay doesn’t so much win said war as fight it to a draw, and what you’re left with is a movie of dizzying peaks and stomach-dropping valleys. It’s worth seeing just to bask in a film that does ask for inclusion on such a grand scale, that does score points both subtle and not-so-subtle (“I’ve never seen the point of fences,” notes Whatsit, and the subtext is understood), that does question why the province of tentpoles belongs to one group and not every group. What she brings to the party is invaluable. And what is on screen is a singular adaptation that stumbles more than you wish it would. If you can embrace that and forget the title’s baggage, this dark, stormy ride may make up for it in sheer out-thereness. Every generation gets The NeverEnding Story it deserves. This one may very well be ours.