Disney’s A Wrinkle In Time is a success for many reasons. It’s the first $100 million movie made by a female black director. It features a mostly-female cast, and serves as the breakout for the movie’s lead, 14-year-old Storm Reid. And, along with Black Panther, it helped create a new milestone: Coming in at #2 this week, A Wrinkle In Time is part of the first pair of movies helmed by black directors to go 1-2 at the box office. So, then, why is Ava Duvernay’s latest being considered a failure by critics and a disappointment by audiences?
It all starts with the source. Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time is a notably complex novel, especially one marketed as a children’s book. Working off of the complex, interplanetary journey taken by the book’s version of Meg Murry, the team of DuVernay and screenwriters Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell had to decide what worked on the screen and what was best left on the pages. The problem with making those decisions is that the built-in fanbase – people who loved the book – will always be suspicious of an adaptation that isn’t 100% faithful. Perhaps the movie would have been better off going the way of another recent adaptation of an “unfilmable” novel: Alex Garland’s decidedly not kid-friendly Annihilation used its source material as inspiration and a jumping off point, rather than a first draft of the screenplay.
A good example of a cut that surely left the novel’s fans out in the cold was the exclusion of Aunt Beast; in the book, an otherwordly alien lifeform helps heal and guide Meg towards her final destination. However, speaking to Cinema Blend, Lee said that they had to remove it from the film because they wanted Meg’s journey to stand alone: “She had to go in there as raw and as wounded and in feeling the wounds of her father. That moment of finding him and realizing he’s not the answer to everything and that the pain is still there.” While that definitely comes through in the film version – the scene between Meg and her brother Charles Wallace inside The It is likely the best part of the movie – removing the Aunt Beast stripped the film of one of its more unique qualities. Which leads us to another problem: frankly, A Wrinkle In Time doesn’t feel unique enough.
When DuVernay signed on to do the adaptation, hype quickly followed the project. After all, she’s one of the best-regarded directors going today, and her movies all have a gritty realism that sticks with viewers. However, A Wrinkle In Time loses that style, choosing instead to go for the full visual spectable of the Mrs., the Camazotz, and The It. While the movie is a marvel for the eyes, it also feels hollow; none of the worlds feel like they’re anything more than CGI, and some of the visual inclusions worked to pull you out of the movie. It also didn’t help that Oprah can be seen as nothing but Oprah.
It’s not surprising that DuVernay defaulted to a style that prioritizes visuals for substance; after all, this is a huge budget Disney movie aimed at kids. In a way, the movie does succeed at being appealing for kids; according to Cinema Score, audiences as a whole gave the movie a B, but viewers under the age of 18 gave it an A-. However, perhaps due to the success of Black Panther across all demographics, or perhaps because DuVernay is held in such high esteem,A Wrinkle In Time was supposed to be better than that. If the film had taken more time to establish itself, rather than zooming from one visual set-piece to another, perhaps it could have bridged the gap between adults and children in the audience.
That zooming is likely the biggest problem in the movie, more than the faithfulness of the adaptation and the lack of a memorable style: the plot is just too disjointed. Meg’s journey blows through the set-up of her father disappearing, her rage materializing over the last loss, and the whole existence of supernatural beings in what feels like 20 minutes. Aside from the movie telling us we should care, there’s little reason to do so. By the time Giant Oprah shows up and whisks away the human team of Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin – Meg’s crush – you either have bought into the light plot and visual style, or you haven’t.
Similarly, Charles Wallace’s descent into The It feels rushed in a way that shortchanges the full brunt of seeing this adorably-gifted 6-year-old go evil. One second, they’re on a beach with a clearly-evil Michael Peña, the next, Peña is dead and Charles Wallace is ruining everyone’s lives. That also plays into the sudden rescue of Meg’s dad – played by Chris Pine – which feels so early in the movie that you think it’s a trick being played by The It. But, no, it’s actually him, and the 4 years that have separated him from his daughter are made to feel like a week, at most. Due to the shorter run-time (the movie clocks in at 109 minutes), the movie needs to throw in a lot of plot into a small time frame, and it suffers for it.
A Wrinkle In Time is a fine way to spend an afternoon with the whole family; there’s no doubt about that. But we live in an era where big movies are expected to cross genres and receive massive box office rewards for doing so ably. Superhero movies are comedies, dramas, and action movies all in one, while horror movies also provide social commentary and its own twisted brand of humor. So, while DuVernay and co. can be left off the hook for just focusing on making it appealing for kids, the adults in the audience might be left scratching their heads and wondering why they couldn’t have taken their time and made a movie that reaches across age boundaries more effectively.