Rarely does a movie’s trailer tell the full story, partially because if it has, then someone, or a group of someones hasn’t done their job well. Though as Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time” proves, it isn’t just plot details that can be so quietly concealed. Based upon both of Disney’s two official trailers eagerly anticipating the film’s release, you couldn’t be blamed for believing this film would be yet another example of the entertainment conglomerate’s skillfully crossing over younger and older demographics for a more age-inclusive viewing experience, much like it has done for their animated fare, Pixar or otherwise, as well as their live-action adaptations.
With a $103-million budget in tow, Disney would surely like to see the film perform better than a $38 million opening weekend – though, really, it’s not as though Disney’s year has gotten off to a poor start – but perhaps unsurprisingly, this A Wrinkle in Time skews its tonal focus toward a younger teenage set reflective of the story’s protagonists. This sort of confusion as to whether or not the material is geared strictly for younger viewers or aiming for a greater mix of folks seems appropriate given L’Engle’s novel’s legacy of raising a similar quandary over its heady themes and questions, and certainly, targeting a younger audience should not represent a strain on any film’s overall quality. In fact, on the surface for various reasons, including the film’s standing as a hopeful bright spot in encouraging greater, more diverse representation for major Hollywood pictures in front of and behind the camera, A Wrinkle in Time has the power to positively influence in younger minds not just an interest in science fiction, but also a desire to engage in difficult questions regarding the universe and human connectivity.
Those of us, critic or not, who have past our formative years must recognize that this isn’t a product that was made for us, and we have to try and approach it from a mindset that considers what this film represents for younger viewers and what it could inspire in them, however it admittedly becomes more difficult to maintain that perspective throughout when the material pulls an Interstellar and asserts that love is essentially a quantifiable variable. It’s a little head-scratching to say the least, especially for a movie directly asking certain celestial questions of its impressionable viewers. Though to be fair, while the sort of love we recognize here is of a familial kind, the love L’Engle would have at least implicitly referred to in her novel would have been that coming from God.
Toning down the overt religious references and spirituality that inspired L’Engle’s novel was another inevitable move from a company looking to maximize its revenue, or perhaps even minimize its losses, finding greater consumer appeal, though philosophically, A Wrinkle in Time does maintain a base-line devoutness, and remains an affirmation for the existence of a greater power or intelligent design. Its theological asserting doesn’t always clash with its occasional astrophysical pondering like you’d think it would, but the primary problem with the film doesn’t lie in that these two seemingly opposing perspectives sometimes clash at all, as their coexistence in the material could engender thoughtful existential discussion, even if it does lean in the direction declaring that there is some underlying logic to the universe rather than it merely being random chaos. Rather, A Wrinkle in Time’s biggest issue is that it aims large, posing complex questions most of its younger audience members will not have answered for themselves, only to give unsatisfying kind-of-sort-of answers that don’t offer a full explanation as much as they fall back on simplified rhetoric repeated ad nauseum.
For clarity’s sake, I’ve no qualm with the case the story is making, and I can certainly barrack for ideas of championing individuality, particularly for younger teenage girls who don’t often see themselves represented in film like they are in Storm Reid’s Meg and even Rowan Blanchard’s Veronica to an extent, and holding up flaws as an essential aspect of who we are without letting them define ourselves. With only a 109-minute framework to both crowd-please and engage intellectually, however, not only does it inevitably take time away from fully investigating the material’s thematic significance and what it means for the characters, but also it gives rise to formulaic storytelling that abides by expected genre beats and narrative checkpoints for the sake of being economical. But you can’t be economical addressing a quandary too complicated to leave for scenes in between the set-pieces, and in this film’s case, the characters suffer from diminished dimension as a result.
It’s cases like these where you’re compelled to tip your hat to performers who press on, trying to find that significance in addition to excavating emotional power, and amidst the consistent tonal see-sawing this film performs, especially in its latter half, many of them craft compelling scenes together putting their full weight into a deficient script occasionally feeding them stiff lines of dialogue. Sometimes, though, their efforts are even undercut by clumsy expositional scenes that obfuscate the distinction between the heartfelt and the disarmingly buoyant. And credit where credit is due, for DuVernay not only chose to work on as difficult a project as this one, but also tried her damnedest to extract every possible note of intrigue and depth from a script that unfortunately lets her down more than she can lift it up, and all that it will resemble is an inoffensive outlier when it could have been a messy disaster.
Funny enough, though, it’d have been hard to imagine A Wrinkle in Time standing out from the year in the grander scheme, especially amongst all of the franchise films and live-action classics revisiting or reimagining that the House of Mouse has primarily given its financial support. A Wrinkle in Time is not an original property – it’s also been adapted for Disney once before – and yet, it’ll likely take a back seat as if it were. In the age of franchise products and superhero smashes, should we support ventures like this as if they were original? I would say yes, especially for projects like this that dare to be a little strange. Stronger execution is a must, but at least there are some people left out there still trying.