The best children’s movies have an almost textural quality—an all-encompassing atmosphere in which the material nature of the fantasy becomes one with the imagination. Think of the magic of seeing one’s feelings come to life in the little rubber creatures of Toy Story, or the courage in Spirited Away’s Chihiro, which only grows more palpable as the beings around her grow more monstrous. This melding of the senses, a kind of synesthesia, occurs in books, too. Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (1962) begins “It was a dark and stormy night.” Meg Murry, the book’s 13-year-old protagonist, is frightened in her bed and it is as if we are in the bed with her.
But if there is a texture to Ava DuVernay’s new, eagerly anticipated adaptation of L’Engle’s novel, it’s that of a Disney Channel television show. DuVernay’s movie is bright, cheerful, and ferociously shiny. It has an atmosphere of no atmosphere. The plot is essentially the same as the book’s. Meg’s father, a scientist, disappeared some years earlier, leaving Meg and her brother Charles Wallace bereft, along with their mother (who is also scientist). One day Charles Wallace starts acting oddly, and ropes a boy from Meg’s school, Calvin, into hanging out with them. He introduces them to a strange character named Mrs Whatsit, who then introduces her two friends, Mrs Who and Mrs Which. They explain that the children have to go on a mission through space and time to save the father. They will be sorely tested, and much danger is ahead in the form of an evil entity called It, and the planet It is strangling, named Camazotz. The team will move through the universe by “tessering,” a kind of leap through space-time.
If the movie feels airless to this viewer, it not the fault of the main actors. Storm Reid plays Meg with less of the pluck she has in the book, but more pain. She and her mother are both black, which is different from the book but kind of right for the role—Meg hates her hair and worries she doesn’t have the right look. Partly because this Meg is black, she gets to play those anxieties into something deeper and more complex than simple tween insecurity.
The character of Mrs Who, played by Mindy Kaling, also intervenes in the book’s whiteness. This magical being is so highly evolved that she only expresses herself in quotations. In the book, she quotes from the canon of the West, Shakespeare and so on. In the movie, Mrs Who still quotes Shakespeare but also Rumi and Outkast. It’s a smart and simple way to reframe the cultural assumptions of L’Engle’s book.
The other two supernatural beings are not as effective. Mrs Whatsit in the book is a tiny little old woman, while Mrs Which is, well, a witch. Reese Witherspoon plays Mrs Whatsit in the movie, and is not a little old woman but instead a beautiful and slightly mean character with long red hair who transforms into a gigantic cabbage creature. Mrs Which, the most powerful of the trio, is played by Oprah Winfrey. It’s a Winfrey-ish role, as she stands slightly apart from the human world and dispenses warm wisdom from her lofty and grand position in the universe. But that performance gives the slightly unfortunate effect of Oprah Winfrey playing Oprah Winfrey in this troubled girl’s life.
L’Engle’s book derives its magic from refracting and magnifying Meg’s pain, anger, and impotent rage into a fantasy quest. As in Labyrinth, another children’s classic, the challenges ahead reflect the problems in her life. She fears that the father has abandoned the family, and is furious at him for disappearing. She rails against adults with power and cries and stamps her feet—until she realizes that it is harder, but more powerful, to make decisions on your own. The three magical beings that guide her on her mission lead her to that conclusion as much as to her lost father: “We want nothing from you that you do without grace,” Mrs Whatsit says, “or that you do without understanding.”’
It’s a gorgeous lesson. The problem with A Wrinkle in Time comes from its art direction. DuVernay conjures some fantastical scenes, especially on the beautiful planet Uriel. But instead of the book’s dreaminess, Uriel is so bright and polished that it resembles a screensaver. Its topography is reminiscent of Avatar. There’s a sweet patch of flowers that communicate with the young travelers in a cloud of twittering petals. But again, they are so neon that they look videogame-ish, rather than like a dream.
DuVernay has also updated the disturbing Camazotz, the evil planet in A Wrinkle in Time where Meg’s father is lost. In the book, the planet contains a terrifyingly regulated city where all kids have to bounce a ball in time with each other, and workers come and go from their office buildings at exactly the same time and with identical briefcases. It’s an administrative dystopia that’s flavored strongly by Orwell and Huxley. In the movie, DuVernay uses nightmare scenarios that are more familiar to children. Instead of being scared in an office building, they’re disoriented on an extremely crowded beach. DuVernay keeps the kids bouncing balls, but she has them bounce in a very slightly irregular rhythm that ups the dread factor.
If I’m playing up the little details that mark DuVernay’s skill as a director, it’s because I simply have no idea how today’s children will interpret her world in its entirety. Doubtless, it’s a great thing to have more protagonists of color, and DuVernay has achieved much in her casting and her innovations. But that issue of texture stayed with me throughout the movie, and it emptied out this world of its magic. Is imagination just a different game for kids now? As a critic, it may be that I don’t have the means to evaluate a work of art that’s supposed to be magical, because I can’t retrofit my childhood to one colored by Disney Channel super-saturation. But this movie relied so heavily on the glinting plastic toolbox of CGI that the magic just never arrived. The kid in me left the theater sadly disappointed.