Director Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s classic children’s book, “A Wrinkle In Time,” is more mystifying than magical, proving sometimes these cherished books are best left on the page. A favorite of youngsters since its 1962 publication, the thought-provoking fantasy is a special effects-driven spectacle dealing in cliches while wearing its treacle on its sleeve. This IS Disney, after all.
“Wrinkle” is written by Jennifer Lee (“Frozen”) and Jeff Stockwell (“Bridge to Terabithia”) and tells the story of bullied adolescent Meg Murry (newcomer Storm Reid), her precocious little brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), and their battle against evil as they travel through fantastical worlds across the universe searching for their missing father, a NASA scientist played by Captain Kirk himself, Chris Pine. The sibs are guided by a trio of supernatural Misses played with zeal and bold lipstick by Mindy Kaling (“The Mindy Project”), Reese Witherspoon (“Big Little Lies”), and Oprah Winfrey.
As the film begins, Meg can’t quite understand why her dad mysteriously disappeared four years prior. In that time, Meg goes from “engaged to withdrawn.” She’s sad. Ditto for her scientist mom (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and brainy brother. Abandonment issues abound, as do those syrupy flashbacks showing lots of hugs, kisses and I love you’s.
“Fearless little guy” Charles Wallace conjures up the three Misses — Mrs. Whatsit (Witherspoon, hamming it up), Mrs. Which (Winfrey, playing a cross between Glinda the Good Witch and Maya Angelou) and the lyrical and soft-spoken Mrs. Who (Boston’s own Kaling) — to lead them and their friend Calvin (Levi Miller, with a set of killer blue eyes) on a quest to save Dad from the dark side. Like a road trip movie, they travel from one dimension to the next, overcoming obstacles and discovering self-truths. “Have faith in who you are,” advise the wise Misses.
Disney gave DuVernay the keys to the Magic Kingdom to make “Wrinkle.” With her on board — a woman of color and a $100 million production budget — the film became important and necessary before it even got made. Especially with Oprah on board and a talented young star in Reid (“12 Years a Slave”) playing the lead. But don’t let “Wrinkle” be your first introduction to DuVernay. Her previous works, “Selma” and the riveting documentary “13th” are vastly superior in terms of storytelling, depth and social relevance. In “Wrinkle,” DuVernay shows she can craft visually stunning set pieces and keep the action from becoming overwrought. She’s put together a strong cast that also includes an amusing Zach Galifianakis as a seer named Happy Medium; Michael Peña as the duplicitous Man with Red Eyes; André Holland as Meg’s sympathetic middle school principal; Disney Channel actress Rowan Blanchard as teen bully, Veronica; and “Scandal’s” Bellamy Young as a Stepford-type mom from the Camazotz dimension.
It’s terrific eye candy, filled with dazzling shots of faraway lands saturated in hues of red, orange, green and hot pink, with levitating flowers, and scenes of witches shapeshifting into flying creatures. What’s missing is any emotional engagement. We’ve also seen this story and heard its Disney-approved message to “focus on light when darkness is present” too many times before.
“Wrinkle” is the first of two hotly anticipated Disney properties this year — the second being the musical “Mary Poppins Returns” arriving in late fall — and expectations are staggering. If “Wrinkle” does well at the box office, then expect sequels drawn from the three other novels L’Engle wrote about the fantastical adventures of the Murry children.
— Dana Barbuto may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
“A Wrinkle in Time”
Cast: Storm Reid, Chris Pine, Deric McCabe, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Levi Miller, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Oprah Winfrey.
(PG for thematic elements and some peril.)