Ava DuVernay's A Wrinkle in Time is a magical adventure across dimensions and planets, saturated with vibrant colors and an Oprah the size of a small building. The film begins with Meg Murry (Storm Reid) as she struggles to get through a regular day at school without being bullied by a clique of mean girls led by her next-door-neighbor Veronica (Rowan Blanchard), or answering questions about her NASA scientist father's (Chris Pine) mysterious disappearance. But those early scenes are just as fantastic as the later, more conventionally surreal ones.
For the first time, a young woman of color is starring in a $103 million Disney adaptation of a major literary classic — and the project is helmed by a Black female director. Based on the 1962 sci-fi/fantasy book by Madeline L'Engle, the film gives a radical update to a beloved tale, proving that it's a story that truly belongs to and reflects everyone. And though the film itself does have some weaknesses, the overall message it leaves us with far outstrips them in importance.
Filmed in DuVernay's hometown of Compton, California, Meg's home and neighborhood are compelling in their own right. She and her genius 6-year-old brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) live with their mother (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) – also a scientist — in a state of companionable sadness. They've gotten by since Mr. Murry's disappearance, but a part of them has been lost. (It's important to note that the fact that Meg and Charles Wallace come from a biracial family is never mentioned. It's just a fact, normalized by its very existence.)
That placid existence is shaken up by the arrival of Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), a personification of the universe's good energy who's come to Earth in pursuit of a distress call aimed at the Murry house. Assuming that it's coming from their father, Meg and Charles Wallace agree to join in on a mission to save him, with the help of Meg's new, and only friend Calvin O'Keefe (Levi Miller). Along for the journey are Mrs. Whatsit's counterparts, Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), who's so evolved past language that she only speaks in quotes ranging from Shakespeare and Rumi to Lin Manuel Miranda, and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), the larger than life fairy godmother of celestial beings.
What Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin don't know is that in order to reach Mr. Murry, they have to travel by tesseracts, the so-called "wrinkles in time" that connect the various planets and dimensions of the universe. And while at first this all seems like a romp out of Alice in Wonderland (bright pink flowers that speak "Color"; a happy medium played by Zach Galifanakis who lives in the inside of a crystal), the three quickly realize that there are more sinister forces at work. The stability of the universe is being threatened by a dark power called the IT. Its black smoke tentacles are far reaching and threaten everything it touches, even the humans of Earth. (Feeling jealous? Vindictive? Angry? Inadequate? Blame the IT.) Mr. Murry, it turns out, is being held captive on Camazotz, home of the IT, a place so dangerous that even the Mrs. don't dare travel there.
The casting is spot-on. Reid is a treasure, striking the right balance between insecurity, intelligence, and exuberant excitement, with a dash of awkwardness — she is, after all, 14, and was 13 during filming. Miller has an innate charisma that's surprising in a teenage boy, tempered with a sweet sincerity, while McCab's cherubic appearance makes him a perfect foil for the twist that comes later. Witherspoon gives off Elle-Woods-meets-Madeline-Martha-Mackenzie vibes, complete with green lipstick; Oprah is, well, Oprah (who else could play mother figure to the universe?); and Kaling exudes a grace not usually associated with her Mindy Lahiri and Kelly Kapoor personas. And as the passionate yet deeply flawed Mr. Murry, Pine once again proves that he is the superior Chris.
Still, while A Wrinkle in Time has many good, and even great, individual moving parts, they don't come together as well as one would hope. The source material is notoriously difficult to adapt, and the script doesn't quite get there. At times, it feels like the film is substituting beautiful visuals, courtesy of Naomi Shohan (production design), and Paco Delgado (costume design), for a developed storyline, making what should feel like electrifying action fall a little flat. But it's a testament to DuVernay's skill in directing that the sincerity that's so central to the book never feels schmaltzy in the movie. There is true emotion in this blockbuster, a rare feat in itself.
No doubt the film will suffer from being unfairly compared to the newly released Black Panther, not to mention the inflated expectations that weigh down any film with a diverse cast. That problematic thinking comes down to the fact that we still don't make enough movies depicting people of color, or directed by women (let alone a woman of color), so that when we do, they have to be the best that ever was. We don't place those kinds of stakes on movies made by white men — in fact, quite the opposite. How many John Wicks are we even at now? You wouldn't compare Iron Man to Harry Potter, so why do that here?
There will be naysayers, of course, as there are with all films based on stories and characters we imagined as a child. But in this case, change is good. Regardless of how you feel about this particular film when you leave the theater, it has done something remarkable: DuVernay has opened the door for kids who have been erased from popular culture to see themselves represented onscreen.
A young woman of color going about her regular life, and then finding out that she is special — that's a fantasy worth seeing — and believing.