Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Review: "A Wrinkle in Time"

What an awful and disjointed mess.

I never read the popular children's novel by Madeleine L'Engle (or even knew it existed, for that matter). But any movie should be able to stand on its own from its source material, especially one aimed at a YA audience of 9- to 13-year-olds. Instead, we get a big-budget movie that requires a written program and screen subtitles just to approach basic comprehensibility.

Directed by Ava DuVernay ("Selma") from a screenplay by Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell, "A Wrinkle in Time" is the story of a brave, precocious girl who goes on spiritual and inter-dimensional trip across the universe in search of her long-lost father, a dreamer and voyager, who abandoned the family out of a sense of higher purpose.

(If that sounds like it has a more than passing resemblance to the plot of "Interstellar," that's because it does. One wonders if this movie could exist without that one, or that movie could exist without the book. But that's one for the philosophers and/or copyright lawyers to ponder.)

The film is getting most of its attention for the starring role of Oprah Winfrey as the chief of "the Missuses," odd interstellar beings easily identifiable by their pancake makeup, kooky elaborate costumes and bedazzled faces and hair. As Mrs. Which, Winfrey wears what appears to be a cross between a suit of armor and Cinderella's ballroom gown, jeweled eyebrows and an albino wig of sea foam swirls.

For most of her scenes, Mrs. Which materializes in an outlandishly outsized form, so she's literally towering above the other characters, delivering pronouncements from on high like a beneficent god-queen. I realize that's already how a large chunk of our population views Winfrey, so it will likely not seem out of place to them.

Though, in keeping with the broadcasting titan's self-love ethos, Mrs. Which admonishes one of her lessers that there is 'no such thing as the wrong size' -- which is something you can get away with saying if you are a billionaire who has literally been every size.

Her sisters/followers are Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), who always seems a little dazed and is constantly reciting famous quotes -- with attribution! -- and Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), who appears to be the novice of the trio, having been assigned to help out Meg Murray (Storm Reid), the story's protagonist.

The Missuses actually disappear about halfway through the movie, leaving the kids in charge. Meg has become moody and angry in the four years since her dad vanished, claiming it's possible to bend space and time with the help of a Tesseract. It's unclear if this is a physical object or a term for using one's mind, since the act of wrinkling the cosmos is also used as a verb "to tesser."

Conjugate that, kiddies!

Her adopted 6-year-old brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), is supposed to be some kind of pint-sized science genius, although with his chirpy voice shouting most of his dialogue at parakeet octaves, I'll have to take the filmmakers' word that what he had to say was smart. He comes along for the trip, for reasons that remain unclear.

Even murkier are the motivations of Calvin (Levi Miller), a dreamy boy who's nice and supportive to everyone. His job is basically to just stand around and tell Meg how great she is. In most movies, Calvin and Meg would end up as a cute teen couple, but despite some moony looks passing back and forth, there's barely even a supportive hug.

Calvin is not so much a character as a Beta Male fantasy of what 12-year-old girls think the perfect boy is supposed to be like, at least until they get to high school and dump him for the football jock or the parking-lot pothead.

Anyway, they visit various fantastical-looking worlds filled with flying flowers and other CGI curiosities, and at one point Whatsit transforms into a flat, furry flying creature that looks like a vegan version of the critter from "The Neverending Story."

There's also some kind of evil force spreading across the universe, known simply as the It, which I thought we had all clearly established was an underground clown that either kills children or makes them have group sex with each other.

Zach Galifianakis turns up as the Happy Medium, who's some kind of lonely guru; Chris Pine is Meg's dad, sporting Hollywood hair that looks short but droops down past the cheekbones when it gets mussed; Gugu Mbatha-Raw is the mom, consigned to just looking smashing and doing nothing; and Michael Peña plays a guy on a beach who seems helpful but really has his mind on one thing, which either makes him the villain or every single teenage boy ever, who wouldn't be caught dead buying a ticket for this movie.

"A Wrinkle in Time" is like a safe acid trip for youngsters, full of color and music and powerful females and guys who know enough to get out of the way of the ladies.

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