Ava DuVernay’s empathy saves the groundbreaking 'Wrinkle in Time' from getting lost

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

There are 375 movies in history with a budget of over $100 million , but the first of these films directed by a woman of color arrives this Friday with “A Wrinkle in Time” from Ava DuVernay.

Much hype has followed “A Wrinkle In Time” since its announcement in 2016, and many have paired the film with last month’s “Black Panther” as milestones in Hollywood’s march toward progress. Although it doesn’t quite hit as hard as Ryan Coogler’s superhero masterpiece, DuVernay’s “Wrinkle” is a charming fantasy epic, a film that swings for the fences at every turn and hits more than it misses.

Young actress Storm Reid leads the film as Meg Murry, a brilliant 14-year-old student who has been emotionally distant ever since the disappearance of her father (Chris Pine) four years earlier. Meg’s parents are NASA scientists, but her mother (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) drifts away from the field after her husband’s disappearance. Early flashbacks and prologues show Meg and her parents working on experiments together, and it’s refreshing to see black women scientists, as opposed to bespectacled white dudes huddled around a table.

Just before Mr. Murry’s disappearance, the couple adopted a young son, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), who grows up with Meg. To get a sense of Meg and Charles Wallace’s life before the adventure begins, the film shows a normal day at school for the two of them, and it is incredibly painful to watch. Meg is bullied; Charles Wallace hears teachers gossip about their father; the principal gives Meg a lecture. It all feels ripped out of a lower-tier Disney Channel Original Movie. This series of events thankfully constitutes only the film’s first fifteen minutes, but it kicks off an epic fantasy adventure with a whimper.

It’s a great relief when Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) and Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) finally enter the film, providing it with exactly the burst of energy and light it needs. They tell Meg that they need her to help them save her father, and then they whisk her, Charles Wallace and their friend Calvin (Levi Miller) away on a galaxy-hopping adventure.

Though the first act of “A Wrinkle in Time” is conventional and exposition-heavy, it all acts as a setup for DuVernay to absolutely let loose, and the film quickly goes from cringeworthy to crowd pleasing. It does not spend too much time bogged down in the hows and whys of the characters’ supernatural abilities or otherworldly looks — these things just are. Winfrey, Witherspoon and Kaling breathe humorous guiding light into the movie, but Meg, Calvin and Charles Wallace have to figure out their own way through the universe to Meg’s father.

The extraterrestrial locales visited by the trio borrow heavily from other sources, including Dr. Seuss, “The Wizard of Oz,” “Avatar” and sometimes even Japanese video games, such as “Xenoblade Chronicles.” Some are whimsical, some are intimidating, but they are all engaging. Instead of focusing on the science of space travel and other planets, the film focuses on its characters, their relationships with one another and their relationships with themselves.

As the film goes on, DuVernay grows more confident, concluding the story with a trippy, mind-bending metaphor of a finale that one would expect from high-concept science fiction, not a Disney fantasy-adventure. Throughout the film, Meg grapples with herself and the person she feels pressured to be, rather than who she is. As she barrels toward this conclusion, it becomes clear that her journey is just as much about her own growth as it is about her father.

In spite of its flaws, “A Wrinkle in Time” is an earnest plea for how much better the world could be if we loved ourselves and loved one another. As corny as that sounds, the plea, like the movie, rings true.

“A Wrinkle in Time”

  • Rating: PG
  • Runtime: 109 minutes
  • Score: 3.5/5 stars