The road to mediocrity is paved with good intentions.
Disney’s latest empowerment sci-fi adventure film is, alas, a monument to good intentions (diversity! ladies in charge!) which nevertheless results in a lot of “…sound and fury/Signifying nothing.” So, let’s break down what happened on-screen and off to put a wrinkle in A Wrinkle in Time.
Much like the well-received Wonderwoman and Black Panther movies, A Wrinkle in Time boasts a diverse cast and crew, in this case not only putting front and center a woman, but a woman of color as the lead. To some, the recent drum beat sounding through entertainment for increased representation may seem a bit wearying, but I can assure you that representation really does matter.
For example, I’ve spent all my life as a woman of size. Yet, I didn’t see myself depicted as a hero in film until Melissa McCarthy transitioned into Hollywood. Her turn in the movie Spy, where she transformed from a demure behind-the-scenes analyst to a confident James Bond, pursued and refusing the romantic overtures of no less than Jude Law, encouraged me greatly. My body type mattered. I could watch a movie where someone like me was the hero.
SNL’s Leslie Jones moving tribute to seeing Whoopi Goldberg on television, and how that inspired her to know that she, too, could be a stand-up comedian is why representation matters. For a Caucasian friend of mine, knowing that her son, with his mixed African American heritage, will be able to see the noble Prince T’Challa as a role model matters.
Art is how we tell ourselves what’s normal. History is how we tell ourselves what’s possible.
To use myself as an example again, because I grew up with the stories of my female forebears – which included army nurses, lady novelists, independent office managers, fiercely intelligent stenographers from before the turn of the century – I grew up with so great a cloud of witnesses that fulfilling my personal theodrama of being a woman in the arts was never in question. I had role models.
Therefore, I heartily and unequivocally applaud Ava DuVernay for taking the reigns on A Wrinkle in Time, and casting not only her primary characters across a more diverse spectrum than just black/white, but also filling up the background characters and even pictures on the wall with a spectrum of humanity. It warms the cockles of my heart to think of some young girl who sees herself not only on the screen, but perhaps more powerfully behind it.
And yet: the movie fails. Spectacularly. Why?
The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men…
In order to make a great work of art, all the parts – or nearly all the parts – need to cohere together. This is called “the vision” of the piece, and it’s when every part of the collaboration, from the writer to the director to the guy who paints the sets agree to and work towards this same vision that great art is achieved.
However, when there are competing visions, or a lack of vision leaving everyone adrift to make half-hearted choices, the art cannot cohere.
A Wrinkle in Time suffers from a lack of vision.
Madeline L’Engle’s Christian underpinnings have been surgically excised from the script, beginning rather obviously with replacing Mrs. Who’s (Mindy Kaling) Bible quotes with modern rap artists – presumably in a bid to be “relevant” to the target demographic. Now, this is not inherently problematic in itself: after all, it can be easier to receive the Gospel through the lens of the talented Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Quiet Uptown,” than through a sermon on Matthew 18. The problem is that by excising these words, it excises L’Engle’s vision. The problem is that by choosing the most banal parts of otherwise great artists to replace these words, the movie chooses banality.
The problem is that these words were altered in the name of diversity, rather than in the name of strengthening the story’s vision.
By having diversity as the only unifying vision, the film tries to be something to everyone, and ends up being very little to anyone. The book deals with the perennial fight between “dark” and “light,” but rather than sinking into what sin and salvation explicitly and specifically mean, the central conflict is kept to the level of CGI-stakes. There is no there there.
Script: Worldbuilding and Character Development
The script itself was originally drafted by Jeff Stockwell (Bridge to Terebithia), and then rewritten by Jennifer Lee (Frozen). Because Lee worked on the script during the shooting of the film, I’m going to credit her with most of the plot holes of the script. And frankly, I see a lot of overlap between the story mess that is Frozen and the story mess that is A Wrinkle in Time.
To take one very basic example, in sci-fi and fantasy (collectively called “speculative fiction,”) it’s important to set up the rules of the world. We need to be told the rules of Faerie: if you eat this mushroom, you’ll grow and shrink like Alice; the White Witch keeps it always winter but never Christmas; the crew of Galaxy Quest needs a Beryllium Sphere to power their space ship.
Yet Lee doesn’t seem interested in orienting us in her story telling. Elsa’s magic can not only create stuff out of snow and ice…she can create independent, sentient life out of it. How? Since when does frozen water have the power of sentience? Similarly, Stuff Just Happens in this movie adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time. We’re told that to “tesser” (teleport) you need the right frequency. Alright, all well and good for this Star Trek junkie. But we’re not given the basics of how the quantum physics works. If I didn’t already know about quantum entanglement going into the film, I wouldn’t have gotten any of the Really Cool Science that also lives in L’Engle’s book. (The science being the only part of the book that I do remember from having read it.)
Lee also seems to have an issue with character motivation. In A Wrinkle in Time Meg doesn’t really want anything – other than the McGuffin of getting her father back. She’s a passive character until she’s spurred into action. As a consequence, when the big climax comes and Meg’s presented with the possibility of being a popular version of herself, we never knew this would ever really be a temptation. She seemed to avoid the popular girls. She doesn’t care for compliments about her hair (a nod to real life issues that bi-racial girls can face), but she never verbalizes what she wants instead. Her entire character is a negative; a blank.
Similar problems plague Frozen. Except that we have the anchoring “I want” songs – which all vary, too (I want to build a snowman, I want to find true love, I want to run away) – both Anna and Elsa are fairly reactive. Anna goes on a quest to find her sister, because Plot Needs to Occur. But otherwise, she vaguely wants a guy and any guy will do. Meanwhile Elsa’s entire being is, like Meg, made up of negatives. She doesn’t want, so much as she doesn’t want.However, Frozen can still be satisfactory viewing mostly because it has great songs. And a lot of fancy effects can cover over a multitude of sins.
So how do those effects fare?
The movie, I’m sorry to say, is physically difficult to watch.
Something you’d never know from the trailer. And that’s largely due to the cinematography and the editing, credited in the film respectively to Tobias A. Schliessler (2017 Beauty and the Beast – also a hot mess), and DuVernay’s long-time collaborator Spencer Averick (Selma – not a hot mess).
I’m going to put the greater blame here on cinamatographer Schliessler, since – just like the actors can only work with the script they’re given – an editor can only cut together the film he’s handed.
Schliessler insists on moving the camera constantly. He never gives us wide establishing shots, leaving us with a claustrophobic feel in a movie that’s supposed to be about wonder. He doesn’t use jigglecam so much as he employs “I’m rather distracted and happen to be holding a camcorder – what was I supposed to be shooting again?”-cam. You know: it’s supposed to be arty because we’re suddenly looking unsteadily at a well lit sandwich that’s partially out of frame. In fact, most of this film is partially out of frame, the camera either held too high or too low as though he were unsure how to film children. The Mrs. W’s are typically in extreme close-up, but not quite in focus – so that rather than seeing on what they’re doing, you end up getting impressions, mostly of Oprah’s bedazzled eyebrows.
Unfortunately, Averick tries to overcompensate by giving Baz Luhrmann a run for his editing money. Only, where Luhrmann is purposefully kinetic, Averick’s choices are random and unmotivated by story. As a consequence, between the dizzying camera and the constantly changing points of view, the audience never knows where they are. There’s no way, visually, to get a toe hold on the story (such as it remains).
Let’s take a look at two examples.
First, view this excellently edited and scripted trailer for A Wrinkle in Time – noting how they slow down and speed up shots to match with the music, how they give the worldbuilding information upfront, using centered establishing shots so that your eye is drawn to a single focus.
Then compare it with an actual scene from the movie, noticing how the editing just happens, the camera never tells us exactly where everyone is, and as a consequence, we have difficulty hearing the dialogue…which is itself frenetic.
If you’re interested in learning more about how cinematography and editing affect storytelling, I recommend watching this video by Lindsay Ellis. I’ll give you a second.
The Rest: Music, CGI, Costumes, Sets & Acting
Unfortunately, if you’ve got a shaky basis for your storytelling, there’s only so much everyone else can do. Even more unfortunately, there’s some more hit or miss elements to this movie.
The music is by Ramin Djawadi, best known for Game of Thrones. A fact that left my jaw hanging since the incidental music is so totally vacuous, if not downright distracting. Vacuous? Distracting? From the guy who gave us this?
The costumes, especially for the Mrs W’s, are pretty impressive. Even if not all three women look equally at home in their attire. My largest critique is that, much like the rest of the movie, there is no guiding principle for costume design. “Cool,” and “not Western,” seems to be the only directive. Once again, since there is no overarching vision, the costumes represent some interesting, but unfocused choices.
The sets fare fairly better. Stately African American portraits line the family home; the family’s laboratory is glassy and blue; and best of all the evil planet of Camazotz sports an inventive geometric and disorientatingly cheerful design that perfectly encapsulates L’Engle’s vision.
Like many movies that rest on child actors, the talent is a bit hit or miss among the cast. Chris Pine and Gugu Mbatha-Raw are excellent as the Murry parents, although there is far too little of them on screen. Deric McCabe has some promise as Charles Wallace, and had she been given more to do, Storm Reid as Meg acquits herself competently. Levi Miller as Calvin, Meg’s love interest, manages to look longingly at the heroine, but otherwise is pretty much a blank. Poor Oprah Winfrey looks as scared as she said she felt filming. Mindy Kaling, normally so bubbly on the small screen, is strangely subdued. Only Reese Witherspoon seems to be having any fun.
My problems stem from two sources: the script doesn’t give the actors much to dig into, and the director seems to think that people smiling at each other while staring into the middle distance is somehow deep.
A Wrinkle in Time is not a good movie. It’s barely mediocre. It may be part of history, and therefore an important or influential movie – and for those longing for greater diversity in representation in entertainment, that might be enough. However, I think that laudable ideals also deserve laudable art. And for that, I find this film a lamentable disappointment. Pass.
Disagree? Check out guest reviewer, Deede Bergeron’s take on the Pop Feminist here: Through Children’s Eyes.
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Image courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes, Disney 2018