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Ava DuVernay’s new film is a surreal and primary-coloured children’s story: good-natured, unworldly, a bit ungainly, not a masterpiece, but amiable and generous in spirit. Knowing absolutely nothing of the 1962 novel by Madeleine L’Engle on which it’s based, or the Disney TV movie of 2003, I had no fanbase-proprietary claims, no preconceptions as to how this story should be treated or reinterpreted. To me, it felt interestingly like a Roald Dahl tale but without the cynical, vinegary tang. Those tearful, final scenes and the trio of kids reminded me weirdly and pleasantly of something else: The Railway Children.
Yet A Wrinkle in Time has been a bit coolly received by critics, who have indicated that they cannot necessarily submit to its updated credentials as a story about empowerment and young people of colour. Maybe stories about dynamic male superheroes are much more eligible for acclaim on this basis, or any basis, than stories about girls.
The movie centres on Meg Murry (played by newcomer Storm Reid), a clever, shy, mixed-race girl in her early teens who is bullied at school. She has a younger brother who is even more prodigiously clever, routinely known by his first and middle names: this is Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe). Meg and Charles Wallace’s parents are both scientists. Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays their mother, whose field is particle physics, and Chris Pine is their dad. His work appears to occupy the rarefied zone between theoretical physics and pure mathematics.
One afternoon, catastrophe strikes. Meg’s dad gives a lecture at which he beamingly reveals to an audience of scientists and rationalists his belief in mind-controlled travel through time and space. Two points on the space-time continuum, he suggests, can be pinched together, like separate points on a piece of paper: all that is needed is a fold or a wrinkle. Everyone is aghast. Murry is mocked for his embarrassing and grotesquely unscientific pronouncement and his reputation is in tatters. Humiliation is heaped on his family then he simply disappears. All of Meg’s teachers and perhaps even her mother have come to believe that he simply succumbed to a mental breakdown – of which this “wrinkle in time” stuff was an obvious first symptom – and ran away, or maybe had an affair.
But Meg keeps the faith, believing passionately that her father has gone on a hyperspace journey to the far reaches of the cosmos. She sets out to find him, along with Charles Wallace, and Calvin (Levi Miller), a neighbouring boy who is not-so-secretly in love with Meg. Meg is also helped by three very odd wise women: Mrs Who (Mindy Kaling), Mrs Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) and Mrs Which (Oprah Winfrey).
These women take the children to a hyperreal, bucolic landscape, entertainingly like Middle Zealand in The Lego Movie, and Mrs Which towering colossally above them (perhaps in cheerful tribute to Winfrey’s own massive prestige) wearing an expression of monolithic, seraphic detachment. She is not unlike David Bowie in Jim Henson’s movie Labyrinth. The children go on to encounter various strange figures, such as the Happy Medium (Zach Galifianakis) and Red (Michael Peña), as they approach the truth about their absent father.
This is a film that is always aware of its own value system, if not preachy then a bit teachy, bearing the same reverence for women’s education and cultural diversity as the Narnia stories had for Christianity. Images of Maya Angelou and James Baldwin are there to be noticed in the background of many shots of Meg’s school life, role models pinned up on the classroom walls. Whether the film actually promotes science as such is another question. I have an uncomfortable feeling that some fans might not quite grasp the purely metaphorical basis of the wrinkle in time. And yet, without its literal application, the story loses something of its oddity and grace.
For all its avowed modernity and rebooted engagement with contemporary issues, A Wrinkle in Time does seem very much like a product of the Disney 60s: a wacky fantasy family adventure. In fact, another comparison from that innocent age came into my head, watching this: The Incredible Journey, from 1963, the story about two dogs and a cat who lose their owners and have to find their way home. A Wrinkle in Time has charm.
Source: The Guardian
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