Reviewed by Zack Evans
Whether or not the book is a timeless classic, the basic premise of A Wrinkle In Time is certainly the stuff of archetype. Following the disappearance of her father four years ago, Meg Murray, played by the excellent Storm Reid, grows into a Troubled Teenager – she is bullied at school and has a difficult relationship with her mother. There’s a refreshing additional dynamic between Meg and her younger boy genius brother, Charles Wallace Murray, startlingly well played by Deric McCabe.
After establishing that both home and school life ain’t great, the story of her father’s disappearance (a thoroughly anodyne Chris Pine) is told in flashback, after some heavy-handed foreshadowing. The cinematic language of Earth is also heavy-handed, in the literal sense – the claustrophobic hand-held approach may be intended to reflect the domestic situation in the style of Fincher, but mixed with some thoroughly 90s focus pulls, it’s more akin to CSI: Kansas.
The bullying reaches a climax after a schoolyard exchange and a social faux pas from Charles Wallace. As a result we meet the school principal, in a nuanced appearance by Andre Holland (Moonlight, Selma) with excellent work from both actors exploring Meg’s character flaws.
By the point it’s well understood that Dad disappeared himself by playing with his time and space machine doohickey. Meg has been sent home to cool off and finds herself pondering if the same travel will be possible for her, which of course it is. A witch appears in Meg’s garden to explain how – it’s an infodump, but by crikey nobody minds, because Reese Witherspoon completely disappears into her role as Mrs Whatsit, with free reign to chew all the scenery, practical or rendered.
At this point the writing (from Disney animation expert Jennifer Lee, and Jeff Stockwell) really picks up. Mrs Whatsit introduces us to Mrs Which and Mrs Who (one of whom is Oprah Winfrey, and both of whom are opportunities for well-played Abbott and Costello riffing.) It’s refreshing to find a film that gently mocks itself – Disney have definitely mellowed lately – yet it (thankfully) eschews full-on self-reference or the sort of team-written banter that divides opinion in the comic cinematic universes. What it has instead is a sense of fun and lots of brilliantly simple gags in the dialogue.
The device – for plot and travel – is “tessering” – referring to tesseracts (four-dimensional cubes.) In general the science dialogue is unusually good, with a reference to quantum entanglement which actually makes some sense. There’s a strong flavour of Heinlein, but for kids, throughout, helped by the equally strong Oz element.
Meg is taught how to tesser, and off we go on a Quest, but with a pleasing breadth, where several characters discovers themselves along the way, not just Meg. The first hyper-planet, Uriel, is played beautifully by a super-saturated and heavily augmented New Zealand. Director Ava DuVernay and the whole film are clearly more comfortable in the fantastical half of the film, such as a memorable sequence in the Happy Medium’s cave with Zach Galifianakis having terrific fun jumping around on magma blocks and doing mind-melds and such.
The latter parts of the story handle emotional journeys well, but predictably. The incidents themselves are individually good, but incoherent: an evil clown, a superb version of suburban hell, and another weird sequence that is pure Neo, but in Cube. It’s clearly excellent dark YA psycho-horror from the book – but as a film it feels inconsistent.
All the performances are excellent, including Levi Miller as the romantic interest. However, none of the story is quite on the button, and the whole back-on-Earth strand is clumsy. Charles Wallace rescues the whole thing – McCabe handles some complex character changes and the turn of an act as if he was, well, a grown-up. That boy will go far.
Director: Ava DuVernay
Screenplay: Jennifer Lee, Jeff Stockwell (based on novel by Madeleine L’Engle)
Stars: Storm Reid, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Karling, Levi Miller, Deric McCabe, Chris Pine, Gugu M’Batha-Raw, Zach Galifianakis, Michel Pena, Andre Holland
A Wrinkle In Time is in UK cinemas from Friday March 23rd