Strenuously, almost painfully inspirational, Ava DuVernay’s take on Madeleine L’Engle’s 1962 sci-fi classic—a back-pocket perennial for generations of smart kids—has an alive mind but you’ll wish it would stop telling you once in a while. How could it not, with Oprah onboard? Winfrey plays our regal guide to the fantastic, Mrs. Which: gigantic, benevolent, purring with advice. It’s not really acting for her. Still, this is a character whose bejeweled eyebrows change from scene to scene in an effortless show of fabulousness; DuVernay and her star are having so much fun with the character, an unencumbered cosmic mother with no mansplainers in sight, that they almost get you over the weaker bits.
A Wrinkle in Time, the movie, loses some of L’Engle’s braininess—“tesseracting” time travel becomes less a consciousness-expanding journey than a yoga class in one scene—but in its place, there’s a quiet radicalism, some of it offscreen. Meg Murry, the story’s insecure teenage hero, in search of her missing NASA-scientist dad, has been cast with a biracial actor (Storm Reid, charming in her gentler moments), and the decision is of a piece with the morphing material. Similarly, DuVernay is the first woman of color to command a $100-million-plus budget and that’s not insignificant: With Selma and her criminal-justice exposé 13TH, she’s committed herself to films of seriousness, her new YA movie not excepted. It’s about nothing less than coming into intellectual confidence.
Sometimes that point is made with emotional elegance, as when we see Meg folding her way through giant golden ribbons, eyes closed, a serene smile on her face. Elsewhere, this is a film that’s trying to wow you with phantasmagorical visuals at every turn: swaying gardens of gossiping flowers, Reese Witherspoon turning into a flying spinach leaf (words will never get you there), the spooky terrain of the evil IT.
No Hollywood film can ever solve the central problem of adapting this book, in that it inevitably does too much of the imagining for you. DuVernay makes a big-hearted go of it, even if she seems slightly dazzled by her own magical mystery tour.