A Wrinkle in Time is too confusing for kids – but too simplistic for adults

A movie rich in diversity fails to match it in terms of imagination. 

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The divide between children’s cinema and its adult equivalent has never been strictly demarcated, and rightly so. If it were, we might be forced to say that The 5,000 Fingers of Dr T and The Wizard of Oz and The Black Stallion and Toy Story all belonged on the children’s side of that line, when the particular miracle of each of those titles is that they appeal in different ways to viewers of varying emotional and intellectual maturity. To claim that any of them engages exclusively with children would be to miss their in-built range and dexterity. (Not that a film made purely for children should be considered culturally inferior; appealing to that demographic is a skill in itself that gets overlooked whenever something is described as being “only” for kids.) 

A Wrinkle in Time, however, is a folly that looks unlikely to please any of the people any of the time. This new Disney fantasy, based on the 1962 novel by Madeleine L’Engle, is directed by Ava DuVernay, a filmmaker known previously for her work for older audiences. (Selma, starring David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, was her last and most celebrated film.) With A Wrinkle in Time, she has forgotten basic ideas about storytelling. The picture seems to me to fall between any number of stools, satisfying neither on an artistic or intellectual level, too confusing for children and too simplistic and happy-clappy for adults. It’s s the story of Meg (Storm Reid), a 13-year-old girl who travels with her younger brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) through fantastical landscapes of time and imagination, each place decked out in gaudily-coloured New Age kitsch. They’re looking for their father (Chris Pine), a scientist who has been missing for four years—the same length, incidentally, as a presidential term. It seems he may have “tessered”, which means he vanished on waves of positive thought that have transported him into the future. Think of it as the next step up from Uber.

The movie is visually banal but its greatest failing is surely its woolliness. The sections in which Storm is in the company of her three guides—Mrs Which (Oprah Winfrey), Mrs Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) and Mrs Who (Mindy Kaling)—are about as dramatically rich as staring at a lava lamp while someone reads aloud from a self-help manual. It would be remiss of me to make any judgements based on the reported $100m budget but let’s just say that sort of money doesn’t seem to have reached the screen. What we get instead are some low-grade videogame-style graphics, and a scene in which Mrs Whatsit turns into a flying lettuce leaf. Did someone order the salad?

The cultural advantages of a movie that is this rich in diversity both behind the camera and in front of it are too obvious to be stated. But as a work of imagination it feels stunted, with blanded-out performances that take their lead from the deadening hand of Oprah Winfrey, presiding over the whole affair with an aura of holiness. She was a far better actor in the days of The Color Purple, back before she came saddled with that righteous persona. 

What DuVernay has delivered is essentially a feature-length screensaver which operates on the assumption that cinema for children is a matter of bright colours and dippy sentiment. The idea that the characters need only defeat the “It”, the source of all negativity in the universe, for the world to be a happy place is a dangerous one to be selling to young audiences. The “It” is shown here to be the origin and cause of everything bad; it is even responsible for crime and destitution, which rather lets governments and centuries of adverse social forces off the hook. One important question, though, is left unanswered. Is it responsible for bad movies also?

A Wrinkle in Time is on release.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.