By Eleanor Ringel Cater
Let’s blame Oprah. She gets blamed for so much else, so why not?
The beloved icon arrives in “A Wrinkle in Time” bigger than life and twice as unnatural. She’s got gold-beaded eyebrows and is dressed in what might be called The-Jetsons-Meets-Game-of-Thrones chic. And she is big — tall as a house, with an imperious (yet down-to-earth and kind-hearted) manner that suggests, well, Super-Sized Oprah.
But Oprah isn’t what’s wrong with “Wrinkle;” the problem is far more widespread.
Madeleine L’Engle’s beloved 1962 fantasy concerns an adolescent girl named Meg (Storm Reid) and her quest to find her father (Chris Pine), a scientist who mysteriously disappeared four years earlier. Ava DuVernay’s movie version begins well, establishing the strong father-daughter bond, as well as what it’s like to be the kid who doesn’t fit in.
Meg is smart, bespectacled, bi-racial and feisty, all of which, in a better world, would make her a star (Reid herself is stunning). But junior high isn’t anyone’s idea of a better world and once her father is gone, Meg feels like even more of a misfit.
It doesn’t help that the resident mean girl likes to tease her or that the faculty routinely indulges in nasty gossip about what might ‘ve happened to Meg’s dad, who was obsessed with being able to travel 91 million miles in the snap of a finger.
Then one dark and stormy night (literally) Meg’s precocious little brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), invites a slightly ditzy, potentially psycho sprite into their living room. She’s Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) and along with Mrs. Which (Oprah) and the quote-loving Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), she’s one of a trio of witches/guardian angels/spirit guides who will start Meg, Charles Wallace and a conveniently on-hand cute guy named Calvin (Levi Miller) off on a journey to find dad
Up to this point, the movie works wonderfully. Not only does the cast seem just right (even the oversized Oprah), but there’s a sense of incipient enchantment. We can feel the magic about to happen.
And then…it doesn’t. There’s a charming encounter with a field of orchids that “speak color.” And you may even enjoy Witherspoon’s brief transformation into what appears to be the love child of a flying squirrel and a large leaf.
But you can feel the movie deflating, especially after the three lady whatevers depart. You go from worrying that “Wrinkle” might be too gentle, too fragile to serve today’s action-addicted kiddie market to grousing, C’mon, movie, get a grip. Be something.
Having not read the book, I’m not sure what that something could — or should —be. But Meg’s final conflict with an evil force known simply as “The It” is underwhelming at best.
The most effective moments are the unexpected ones. When little Charles Wallace happily lets the whimsically unstable Witherspoon in the house, we’re really not sure what might happen. Later, we’re treated to a kids’ version of a nightmare suburbia where all the houses look the same, all the kids look the same, all the red balls they bounce look the same and, scariest of all, all the “Leave It To Beaver” moms look the same.
But on the whole “A Wrinkle in Time” is a touch-feely disappointment. (Pine to Reid: “I wanted to shake hands with the universe…when the hand I should’ve been holding was yours”). It doesn’t help that Pine looks remarkably like the Dad in a Subaru commercial (“Love…That’s what makes a Subaru.”)
The general rule of thumb when it comes to adapting beloved books is that it’s much easier to get it wrong than right. DuVernay doesn’t get it wrong — not entirely — but she really hasn’t gotten it right either.