As if dealing with pressure from her school’s resident mean girls wasn’t enough, “A Wrinkle in Time’s” Meg Murry (Storm Reid) must also cope with the sadness and anger she feels on the fourth anniversary of the disappearance of her NASA scientist father (Chris Pine). He went missing not long after the adoption of her bright younger brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe). As a result, Charles Wallace never really knew their dad, but he recognizes Meg’s pain and tries to protect her.
Things get worse when Meg vents her anger at one of the mean girls. Fortunately, some new allies appear just in time. Meg is befriended by Calvin (Levi Miller), a popular boy from her class. And, Charles Wallace introduces two new acquaintances he’s made- talkative, curious Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) and quotation-loving Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling).
Unfortunately, Meg is so conflicted she can’t let herself be open to these new friendships. When Calvin tries to compliment her, she deflects his kindness. Meg worries both Mrs. Whatsit and Mrs. Who are eccentric, prompting Mrs. Whatsit to reciprocate by calling out Meg’s suspicious nature.
The discord is smoothed over, at least temporarily, by the appearance of Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), a bejeweled, literally larger-than-life being. Which patiently explains that she, Who, and Whatsit are warriors for good. They were summoned by a message from Meg’s father and have come to help Meg and Charles Wallace locate him.
The three warriors enable Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin to efficiently travel through time and space in search of Mr. Murry via a process called “tessering.” In a nice twist, each of the warriors mentors one of the kids- impulsive Mrs. Whatsit is paired with Charles Wallace, quotation-spouting Mrs. Who with Calvin, and wise Mrs. Which with Meg. As they travel to various planets in search of Mr. Murry, Meg discovers things aren’t always as they seem, both at home and in new lands.
Adapted from prolific author Madeleine L’Engle’s Newbery Award winning classic children’s novel, this screen version of “A Wrinkle in Time” succeeds best when it reveals layers of life that teenage Meg has been too overwhelmed to notice. The time she shares with Mrs. Which and with the Happy Medium (Zach Galifianakis) remind both the audience and Meg that imperfections are not always weaknesses. The script by Jennifer Lee (“Frozen”) and Jeff Stockwell handles these revelations successfully. A scene in which Meg confronts who she could be if she was the mean girl version of herself has especially great impact, visually and thematically.
That said, audiences do need to be prepared for a bit of an Alice in Wonderland-like trip down the rabbit hole as they watch “A Wrinkle in Time.” Guided by the warriors, Meg, Calvin, and Charles Wallace visit a variety of planets and landscapes, ranging from the lush mountains of Uriel to a brightly colored beach scene. The CG creations from a team led by Industrial Light and Magic’s Rich McBride are engaging and varied. Fans of the original story will recognize some of the settings but may miss others that were omitted. Audiences not familiar with L’Engle’s book will just have to let the film take them where it will. Occasionally the logic in Lee and Stockwell’s script has a minor hiccup as in the scene where Charles Wallace inexplicably disappears when a forest erupts. Fortunately, such a moment is rare
Director Ava DuVernay and casting director Aisha Coley selected a diverse, talented cast for “Wrinkle.” Reid deftly handles the various faces of Meg ranging from sad, awkward, angry teen to determined, protective sister. As the three warriors, Witherspoon, Oprah, and Kaling successfully differentiate their characters. Witherspoon’s Whatsit is bubbly and outspoken. Kaling’s Who is knowledgeable and accepting. And, the wisdom of Oprah’s Which brings to mind the popular “Remembering Your Spirit” segments of the entertainer’s TV talk show. The three warriors’ costumes (creatively envisioned by Paco Delgado) complement their personality differences.
As Charles Wallace, young McCabe gets to explore a role that requires him to be both a kind, outspoken elementary school child and a possessed, mean tool of evil. Unfortunately, the film’s screenplay isn’t quite as clear as the book regarding the struggle preceding Charles Wallace’s transformation.
Galifianakis’ Happy Medium is best at moments when he’s sincere; the attempts at humor between his character and Witherspoon’s Whatsit don’t really succeed. And, Michael Pena as the dangerously charming Red weaves a spell that is engaging yet almost too brief.
The film’s music soundtrack seems a bit sparse. This is too bad because the songs that are included (by performers including Sia, Sade, and DJ Khaled with Demi Lovato) add to the emotional depth of the action.
Meg’s journey through “A Wrinkle in Time” starts with the goal of finding her dad. But it reveals much more than that to the teen, enabling her to gain a clearer picture of her worth and values.