Early on in my screening of A Wrinkle in Time, I knew that I liked it. And I knew why others haven’t.
A Wrinkle in Time is terrifically earnest — a movie where bravery, love and believing in yourself can save the universe. For all that Chris Pine’s character longs to travel across the stars, Wrinkle is closer to the Chronicles of Narnia than Star Trek. It’s the sort of film that in my youth would have been rendered in animation, or at least would have been populated by an army of puppets singing a musical number or two: a FernGully, a Secret of Nimh. A Labyrinth.
But in 2018, when we make adaptations of half-century-old classic science fiction we do it with seamless CGI, gloriously crafted costumes and intricately dressed sets, overseen by an Academy Award-nominated director. And when we don’t have to expand our definition of “realism” to believe that a handful of felt and feathers is a mischievous fire spirit, or that a laboratory rat can be drawn to wear a vest and swing a sword, it can feel jarring for the term to encompass scientists who discover that the secret to traveling faster than the speed of light lies in merely adopting the right frame of mind.
I ran into this problem myself, as I struggled to get used to the idea of Mrs. Whatsit as a pretty lady who’d made a couture gown from stolen bedsheets — instead of the unassuming, wrinkled old woman-who-lives-down-the-street I imagined in my childhood. The film adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time makes many heavy lifts to bring Madeleine L’Engle’s now-classic 1962 novel — rejected by more than 26 publishers for the weight and complexity of the way it deals with death, conformity and the root of evil — to the screen in all its bordering-on-hallucinogenic glory.
The basic facts, however, remain the same. Our heroine is Meg Murry, accompanied by her little brother Charles Wallace Murry and classmate Calvin O’Keefe. Meg’s life is currently rather difficult, as she suffers from a socially fatal combination of smarts, short-temperedness and self-sabotagingly low self-esteem. On top of that, every kid in school knows that her family is weird. Her parents are theoretical physicists, her little brother is an unnervingly sophisticated kindergarten-age prodigy and her father has been missing (not dead!) for four years with no explanation.
Meg, Charles Wallace and Calvin are recruited by a trio of strange feminine figures and sent careening on a conceptual adventure against the forces of universal darkness — and also they’re trying to find Meg and Charles Wallace’s missing father.
A Wrinkle in Time feels very little motivation to explain itself, and has no time for its characters to do anything but immediately embrace the impossible as it jumps — sorry, tessers — from one location and secondary character to another in an attempt to slot an infamously “unfilmable” novel into a film structure. This, too, makes it feel like fantasy, a realm where any good adventurer visits a seer for guidance, has some wise chaperones who always disappear just as things get really dangerous, and uses their feelings to change the universe.
But, like in any good fantasy story, director Ava DuVernay has assembled a hefty pile of rewards for any adventurer prepared to suspend their belief an inch or two and come along on the journey. I found myself viewing A Wrinkle in Time through metaphorical bifocals, one half the adult critic, the other half refocusing on how I would have absorbed it all at a much more formative age.
What I got was a beautiful coming-of-age story that never felt as though it was manipulating my emotions, and an adventure that expertly conveyed L’Engle’s themes of hope and love — even existential horror — on screen. Anyone else who, like me, was eagerly waiting to see how creepy a neighborhood of children playing with balls could be will not be disappointed.
A Wrinkle in Time is the kind of movie that doesn’t just capture the imaginations of children, but defines the way they look at the world. It’s an experience that might give them nightmares or upset them with emotions too strong to go on with — as I remember beloved movies like The Princess Bride, Toy Story or Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory doing for me — but a movie whose feelings and frights quickly solidify into, for the children, a better mastery over their own fears.
Most of all, I was struck by Wrinkle’s indescribable quality of rootness, one that I recognize from the favorite childhood media of the weirdo artists I know. It’s the sort of story that you’d relate to a friend, only to have them scream, “Oh my God, I have seen that! I half-thought it was a dream I had!”
Two or three decades from now, it would in no way surprise me to find a generation of young artists who look back at A Wrinkle in Time as the place where their whole mess started. I suggest you bring one of those artists to a theater as soon as possible.