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'A Wrinkle in Time' a noble effort that falls short

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    Oprah Winfrey appears in a scene from 'A Wrinkle In Time.'

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    From left, Storm Reid, Deric McCabe, and Reese Witherspoon appear in a scene from 'A Wrinkle In Time.'

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    Mindy Kaling appears in a scene from 'A Wrinkle In Time.'

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    Zach Galifianakis appears in a scene from 'A Wrinkle In Time.'

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    Chris Pine appears in a scene from 'A Wrinkle In Time.'

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    'A Wrinkle in Time' director Ava DuVernay poses for a portrait in Los Angeles to promote her film.

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A Wrinkle in Time’s message of tolerance and choosing love over hate is sorely needed for our divisive times. It's the messenger itself with the problems.

In Madeleine L’Engle’s beloved science-fiction novel for children, two outcasts — Meg (Storm Reid), a bright but bullied teenager, and Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), her super-genius younger brother — are joined by popular high school student Calvin (Levi Miller), who has problems of his own, in an expansive journey across the universe to find the siblings' missing father (Chris Pine).

In the course of their adventure, Meg, Charles, and Calvin are aided by emissaries of the light, three beings with special powers named Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), and Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), in their battle against the darkness, the cosmic evil known as It.

A Wrinkle in Time

Directed by Ava DuVernay. Screenplay by Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell. A Walt Disney Pictures release playing at Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, Levis Commons, Bowling Green, and Mall of Monroe. Rated PG for thematic elements and some peril. Running time: 109 minutes.

Critic's rating: ★★

Cast: Storm Reid, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Levi Miller, Deric McCabe, and Chris Pine.

In director Ava DuVernay's (Selma) watered-down big-screen adaptation of the novel, their journey is simplistic and uninspired. What was a grand adventure across space becomes a basic good-vs.-evil story as the heroes leap from one pedestrian digital world to the next as they’re urged on to become “warriors” for the side of good.

Some of the film's troubles can be ascribed to adapting the novel’s mix of quantum physics, fantasy realms, and moralizing to the dense script structure of big-screen blockbusters. The trio of films based on C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia series had similar issues adapting the British author’s fantasy books-as-Christian allegory into a Hollywood movie franchise. There are those books with big thoughts too large for the big screen.

But A Wrinkle in Time’s faults are much more than a truncated version of the source material.

As a science-fiction fantasy, the film is a dull parade of planets and realms rendered in pedestrian computer-generated imagery. Most of the digital creations we’ve seen elsewhere and in more believable CGI form. The most imaginative scenes are actually those on a real-world set such as a creepy neighborhood cul-de-sac with a 1950s vibe on an alien world, where human children bounce balls in unison until their mothers call them to dinner in a robotic, synchronized chorus.

This neighborhood that Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin happen upon on It’s evil world is never explained, as with other lapses in the script’s logic. For example: Who are these moms and their children? Are they trapped like Meg’s dad? Or are these Leave it to Beaver-era zombies a swipe at, say, capitalism in a post-war America? 

And while the big-name cast in A Wrinkle in Time is great for marketing, there’s a star problem in the film, and it’s not Winfrey, who brings warmth and compassion to the role, much as she did on TV for years. Rather, Witherspoon as the opinionated and untrusting — at least of Meg — of the three guardians is practically chilly onscreen when standing next to Oprah, and Kaling is mechanical, haltingly so, as a guardian so evolved in communication that she speaks only in literary quotations, proverbs, and, for laughs, occasionally a movie line.

Witherspoon and Kaling’s struggles with their characters could be attributed to the film’s choppy story and character development. Zach Galifianakis is simply miscast.

The comic-actor, known for his roles as weird, often obnoxious but always likable characters, plays the Happy Medium, a cave-dwelling hermit on a faraway planet whose telepathic ability helps Meg and Charles Wallace locate their father. Happy Medium is indeed odd, but never in a charming way. He’s also not particularly funny or endearing, which makes Galifianakis’ appearance all the more awkward.

On the more positive side of the A-list actors in the film is Pine as the endearingly nerdy but cool father, who comes to regret entering that universal doorway — a tesseract — from which he didn’t return. 

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From left, Storm Reid, Deric McCabe, and Reese Witherspoon appear in a scene from 'A Wrinkle In Time.'

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Of the three younger actors, Reid by far fares the best. She is engaging and assured as a teen struggling with so many of life’s challenges but who chooses to embrace the light and ultimately fight for it as well. McCabe, as with many ac­tors play­ing pre­co­cious chil­dren, is more of­ten sit­com-y silly and strange than be­liev­able. The ac­tor isn’t helped by the film’s hur­ried show­down be­tween an It-pos­sessed George Wal­lace and Meg. Miller’s char­ac­ter is un­der­writ­ten, at least as be­ing rel­e­vant to the quest. Calvin is rarely — if ever — rel­e­vant to the quest; he does have a crush on Meg, thus pro­vid­ing a ro­man­tic in­ter­est to the story.

Also underwritten is Meg and Charles Wallace’s likable and supportive mother, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw. We’re promised early in the film that the mom will factor into the story — a promise that goes undelivered.

A Wrinkle in Time’s strongest asset is its moral directive, which, depressingly, remains just as relevant now even decades after L’Engle wrote the novel. It’s also refreshing to see people of color in lead roles as heroes, originally written as white. That DuVernay cast Meg as a black 13-year-old girl and not a white 13-year-old girl, as she is in the book, is in its own way as important as L'Engle writing a novel with a teenage girl as the main hero. The character’s race and even gender has no true consequence to the story. A hero overcoming his/her own flaws and other obstacles is a universal experience. 

That a 13-year-old black girl can see someone who looks like herself as a positive role model in a major Hollywood movie, though, is important. And that’s why A Wrinkle in Time matters, flaws and all. 

Contact Kirk Baird at kbaird@theblade.com or 419-724-6734.

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