PLOT A girl must travel through space and time to find her missing father.
CAST Storm Reid, Reese Witherspoon, Oprah Winfrey
RATED PG (some scary moments)
BOTTOM LINE The convoluted children’s book is now a highly confusing movie.
It has been one of the great conundrums of the universe, right up there with the nature of light and the structure of elementary particles: Is it possible to make a movie of Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time”?
L’Engle’s 1962 children’s book, about a misfit girl who ventures through space to rescue her father from an evil force, has captivated generations of readers despite making hardly a lick of sense. To bring L’Engle’s mix of science fiction, Christian allegory and whimsical fantasy to the screen, Walt Disney Studios tapped Ava DuVernay, whose last film was the civil rights drama “Selma.” DuVernay, the rare black female director, took on an added mission: to bring a half-century-old novel into the modern era by casting a girl of color, Storm Reid, as the heroine and filling other roles with several diverse actors: Chris Pine and Gugu Mbatha-Raw play Meg’s scientist parents, while Deric McCabe, a Filipino newcomer, plays Meg’s precocious little brother, Charles Wallace.
That, it turns out, was the easy part.
“A Wrinkle in Time” stumbles into all the usual pitfalls of young-adult fantasy. It touches on too many tropes — middle-school bullies, fairy godmothers, an attractive trophy boy (Levi Miller) — and threads them together in a contrived storyline. (The screenplay is by Jennifer Lee, of “Frozen,” and Jeff Stockwell.) It borrows from other fictional worlds, most obviously Narnia, but never convincingly creates its own. And when it does try something original — as when one character magically transforms into a flying vegetable, or Zach Galifianakis shows up as a clairvoyant yoga instructor — the effect isn’t glorious but puzzling.
The real letdown is that this ostensibly hip-and-with-it movie feels so square, especially when it comes to its trio of wise women. Mindy Kaling’s literature-quoting Mrs. Who no longer cites Horace and Dante but OutKast and Lin-Manuel Miranda; the effect, however, is less woke prophet than overeager English teacher. Reese Witherspoon’s Mrs. Whatsit borrows Mary Poppins’ worst qualities — arrogance and impatience — without any of the good. (At one point she actually kicks Meg in the ribs.) Meanwhile, Oprah Winfrey, as Mrs. Which, can’t help but become a caricature of her media persona: a wise and benevolent god hovering over us tiny humans.
Reid, an appealing newcomer, gives us something to hang onto, but overall this movie feels like a weird one-off along the lines of “The NeverEnding Story” or “Willow” — only certain viewers will be able to decode and appreciate it. Make sure you bring a fan of the book to this “Wrinkle,” or so help you Oprah you’ll be utterly lost.
OPRAH IN THE MOVIES
Though known more for her work in television, Oprah Winfrey, who plays Mrs. Which in “A Wrinkle in Time,” has delivered a good number of solid performances on the big screen. Here are four of her best.
THE COLOR PURPLE (1985) Winfrey earned a supporting actress Oscar nomination for her screen debut as the strong-willed Sofia, who deals with an abusive husband and is later imprisoned after striking the mayor’s wife. Director Steven Spielberg encouraged Winfrey to ad-lib her climactic dinner table speech.
BELOVED (1998) Winfrey purchased the film rights to Toni Morrison’s bestseller and starred as a former slave who is visited by the spirit of the daughter she had killed. To prepare for her role, the actress allowed herself to be blindfolded and tied up to understand what it was like to be a slave.
LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER (2013) Playing the alcoholic wife of the titular servant to eight U.S. presidents gave Winfrey the chance to stretch her acting muscles with a push from director Daniels, who kept telling her to play her scenes drunker.
SELMA (2014) Winfrey had the crucial role of real-life civil rights activist Annie Lee Cooper, who fought back against a Dallas County, Alabama, sheriff after he physically kept her from registering to vote.
— Daniel Bubbeo