Why A Wrinkle in Time Falls Short

The stars and creators on stage (image obtained through Creative Commons)

More than a week since opening night, A Wrinkle in Time has evoked some surprisingly polarizing responses. Most seem to either love or hate it, with a few taking middle-of-the-road positions.

I fall into the disappointed camp after seeing it on opening night (technically the day before opening night, though I’m still not sure why the theatre can do that). Despite the misgivings that some of the later trailers gave me, I went in hoping against hope that it would be as amazing as the earliest trailers had made it seem. After reading some negative reviews, I lowered my expectations a smidge, but perhaps I was still too optimistic.

Instead, I left extremely disappointed.

[Warning: Spoilers below]

There were parts I liked quite a bit, and on a visual level it is a gorgeous film – I suspect any single frame would make an incredible movie poster (well, maybe not Reese as a leaf creature). The race-bending casting decision was refreshing, and Storm Reid performed well. For such a young actor, it was also impressive how well Deric McCabe played both versions of Charles Wallace.

Calvin’s portrayal was flat, but I’m willing to look past that problem, given how many movies about white boys toss in a two-dimensional love interest for him.  Fair’s fair.

For me, the problem wasn’t so much any individual moment or character (well, Mindy Kaling got on my nerves a few times). Kaling aside, the film’s deepest problem was the way it was all put together: the pacing was off, and the narrative arc put far too much emphasis on the Mrs.’s, which I suspect came down to wanting to give more screen time to these big name actresses.

I get it – movies are about selling tickets and making money, so they marketed it as a film starring three famous grown ups. And maybe they had to make some promises in order to get Oprah, Kaling, and Witherspoon on board. But in order to make it a film that actually starred them, they had to put a lot more emphasis on the adult characters, which they did without adding enough of a character arc to justify the change. So the film stretched out the portions with these quirky guardian angels, which in turn rushed the unsupervised portion of the kids’ adventure.

To me, that was the biggest failing because the portion while the kids are on their own is where they go through the most growth, particularly Meg. And I don’t just mean that about the book – that is where the kids go through the most growth during the film as well, because they no longer have magical guardians to guide and protect them. The stakes are higher, and they have to figure things out on their own. It is not the time to rush.

To make up for the slow pacing that this structural change created in the first half of the film, DuVernay seemed to cram an intense emotional moment into every scene.  In the end, there were so many emotional melt downs that I was eventually rolling my eyes. As a creative writing teacher, I’m always cautioning my students not to have their protagonist sob in every single chapter, because it becomes old fast, and while Wrinkle didn’t quite reach that level, it certainly veered in that direction.

And it was unbearably heavy-handed about the message, especially with the instrumental music that played any time the Mrs’s were onscreen. It didn’t help that there were so many breaks in between dialogue where the famous actresses did nothing but smile prettily at the camera or run whimsically through fields of flowers.

The inclusion of the mean girls at school also felt like a tired trope. Is it realistic for girls to torment each other? Yes. And it’s a story that’s worth exploring, especially since DuVernay took the time humanize the mean-girl antagonist during the (admittedly heavy-handed) montage of IT’s influence on Earth. But it’s suspicious to me that the knee-jerk reaction to a film adaptation of a book about a girl is to add some catty mean girl elements that weren’t in the original story.

To be clear, I’m not at all a purist when it comes to film adaptations of books. Film is a different medium, and directors should make massive changes where needed – the third Harry Potter film is one of my favorites in the franchise for that very reason. But I know from reading interviews that it’s common for female authors of YA and Children’s Lit to push back when movie producers want to add more mean girl/ catty dynamics to a film adaptation. Gail Carson Levine pushed back against that with Ella Enchanted, and Libba Bray pushed back with a potential adaptation of Beauty Queens.

We’ll never know whether Madeleine L’Engle would have objected, since she wasn’t alive to share her opinion either way, but it’s worth noting that in the book, the girls who criticize Meg early on are annoyed with her for trying to “roughhouse” with them, which they consider babyish. So it’s not something that was inherently in the book – it was a deliberate choice to add that element, and it’s quite a predictable move in adaptations of girls’ books.

Among my friends and acquaintances, many of the most positive responses are coming from other feminists, who reasonably wonder if sexism is driving the negative reviews. So I’ve asked myself whether some people are being overly critical because we’re in a culture that doesn’t value stories about girls, especially girls of color. Yes, I’m sure there are people who would have been less critical if the film centered on a male protagonist or even a white girl. Plenty of crappy films about white boys never face the same level of scrutiny.

But I also wonder if we’re so starved for stories that attempt what DuVernay has attempted here, that there are other people who gloss over major problems that they’d be quick to criticize in any other movie, in order to offer unrealistically glowing reviews.

Is it the worst film Disney has ever produced? Of course not. There are beautiful moments throughout. It’s absolutely worth seeing, whether you spring for tickets or wait till it’s on DVD.

Does it deliver what the trailers and advertising promise? I think not.

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