A film full of nitpicks

Ava DuVernay succeeds in bringing the film’s heart to the forefront. But somehow, she has failed with everything else. As far as actual filmmaking goes, I wanted to like this film more than I do.

Nearly every other aspect of this film falls apart, so much so that it’s hard for me to even know where to begin dissecting it. On the whole, the film feels cheap, despite it being a Disney-financed film. The two biggest inklings I got that maybe the film’s budget was weirdly allocated were the CGI treatment of Winfrey’s Mrs. Which, and the transformation of Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) into a huge cabbage dragon.

I understand that Mrs. Which’s true form is a larger than life being, but it seemed surprisingly lazy to showcase Mrs. Which as just a large bust. Why couldn’t we have seen all of her? A skyscraper-sized Mrs. Which would have been scary, intimidating, and formidable, perfect to contrast her maternal, otherworldly nature. But instead, it seems like corners were cut with the presentation of Mrs. Which in the movie. It’s all too clear to see that it’s just Oprah standing in front of a green screen, with computer magic fading the rest of her body out.

Similarly, it’s confounding as to why Mrs. Whatsit never speaks when she’s in her dragon-esque form. We’ve seen plenty of films with CG characters talking – heck, the recent Planet of the Apes series is one that relies solely on the power of CG animals speaking dialogue and signing. We have become used to seeing CG characters do extraordinary things, so it’s no great stretch to expect to see Mrs. Whatsit say something, especially when Calvin falls off of her back in midair. I was instantly reminded of early Pixar shorts, which showed inanimate objects full of life, but never speaking. Clearly, the talent for creating Mrs. Whatsit’s dragon form is there, but it seem like the time wasn’t.

The camera techniques create odd tonal shifts in the story; for several scenes, handheld “shaky” cam is used, making you feel like you’re in a completely different (and much more intense) movie than the kid-friendly adventure you paid for.

The film itself clunkily sets up the story, deciding not to fully immerse us in Meg’s world but to instead give us the highlights of her life. She’s bullied at school. Her principal (Andre Holland) inexplicably doesn’t understand why she’s lashing out, even though the entire school should know how much Meg gets teased by mean girl Veronica (Rowan Blanchard) and that it’s the four-year anniversary of her father’s (Chris Pine) disappearance. She knows amorphous science facts about her father’s work, work that is never explained in any logical way in the film.

These sound like nitpicks, but where A Wrinkle in Time falls apart is that there are tons of nitpicky moments that add up to an irritating movie-going experience.

A film with no ground rules

Fantasy can suffer from the conceit that nothing needs to make sense because it’s “fantasy.” But in truth, fantasy stories still work like any other story; they use ground rules to give the viewer or reader structure and, as the term implies, ground them in their new environments. Take the Lord of the Rings trilogy, for example. Even though it’s a fantasy, it’s completely grounded in a detailed world with its own set of politics and social structures. A more flighty film, Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, plays a little more into fantasy cliche of “anything goes,” but still, there’s enough backstory to situate you in a world in which a strange woman is the missing key to the universe.

Unfortunately, A Wrinkle in Time fails to set up any ground rules. We know we’re supposed to be having fun on an intergalactic trip, but we don’t know how we’re doing it or where we are half of the time. We never understand the true importance of these worlds. We never get lost in the beauty or even the horror of it all; the closest we come to that is on the verdant planet Uriel, where Meg and her compatriots are treated to a field of talking flowers. But our time on the planet doesn’t amount to much; as we’re looking at the world with Meg and her friends via a flight on Mrs. Whatsit’s back, the flight doesn’t actually amount to anything. It ends as Calvin falls off Mrs. Whatsit and is buoyed by the flowers. Our exploration is cut short, and our ability to get fully immersed is limited.

Adventures on these worlds are supposed to be the meat of the film, but annoyingly, they are hastily set up. The worlds we go to are basically empty sets, and much of the magic that could have been imbued in these worlds is missing. We don’t even know how these worlds work, such as Camazotz, the more mercurial planet we visit, which changes its guise from a 1950s nightmarescape to an overcrowded beach. Sure, it’s to trick Meg, Calvin, and her brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe). But usually when characters are trapped in living environments meant to deceive them, the environment turns into something they might be familiar with or somehow have some connection to. Camazotz doesn’t do this; it draws scenarios out of thin air and expects us to go along with it. Not to compare it to Star Wars or Star Trek, but both of those properties go to great lengths to make their unrealistic worlds feel lived-in and tactile. Perhaps Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a more apt comparison; despite it being a box office failure, it still did its best to immerse its audience in a world unlike any they’ve seen.

We’re told characters like the Mrs., including the quote-attributing Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) and the Happy Medium (Zach Galifianakis) are mystical beings, but we never know why they are such or how they came to be. We never know why the It, the bacteria-like villain in the movie, wants to take over people’s inner light. We don’t even know how tessering works, or why it works, or how Meg’s dad figured it out. We don’t know a lot of things, and it’s frustrating. Nothing ever makes sense, and it would have been a relief if just something, at some point, followed some rules.

But there are none, and I was left feeling more and more frustrated the more the film progressed. Yes, my kid at heart was having fun with the messages of the film, and to the film’s credit, scenes involving spreading that message are the most powerful. But the adult me was mad. Where was the magic I was promised? Where were the thrills I was led to believe I would get? I was angry that I was let down by the film. But I was even angrier that it was DuVernay who had let me down.

This film, and DuVernay herself, have a lot of pressure riding on them, and I hoped for DuVernay to turn this one out, if only so I wouldn’t have to be faced with the hard task of discussing the unfair burden put on black and POC-led films, the burden of being perfect in order to succeed, while films with white leads just have to be average to be considered successful.

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About the Author

Monique Jones runs JUST ADD COLOR, a site focusing on race and culture in entertainment. She has written for Ebony, Tor, Black Girl Nerds, The Nerds of Color.