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A Wrinkle In Time: Ava DuVernay's vision is crumpled

Underwhelmed and underwhelming, DuVernay shows no trace of her flair for naturalism and intimate urgency.

Ryan Coogler, a promising black filmmaker, proves himself in a streak of success with Black Panther just one month ago. The heftier pressure was on director Ava DuVernay (Selma, 13th) to continue hers when the Disney adaptation of A Wrinkle In Time, Madeleine L'Engle's classic fantasy book for children, opened earlier this month. The book's themes of mutual trust, perseverance, and courage have been inspiring generations of youths to be creative and devoted. Rendering its film adaptation is said to be impossible, and unfortunately, DuVernay's cinematic effort further proves that point.

In Wrinkle, the Murry couple (Chris Pine and Gugu Mbatha-Raw) found a complex yet simple way to travel the universe, but the science authorities laughed at them. One day, Mr. Murry disappeared without a trace. Speculations about this incident vary from seemingly implausible (he was successful) to cruel (he run away with a secret lover). In Mr. Murry's absence, his wife and children sank into emotional seclusion and couldn't get back to normalcy.

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Four years later, Meg Murry (Storm Reid) becomes a sullen outcast at school. Of course, she's the child of an interracial marriage. Amid the pre-release controversies, this celebration of diversity still deserves proper recognition. It's rare to see a black, teenage girl embarking on an archetypical quest influenced by Joseph Campbell's male-centric journey. DuVernay knows representation is a separate matter from the movie's quality, so she too doesn't draw unnecessary attention to it.

The opening act paints Meg as the broadest strokes of heartbreak and teen angst. Once excellent, the girl now has a lot to be timid about—hair curls and decreasing school grade. Days go by while gloom and disorientation permeate the Murrys' empty home. This is when Meg's adopted brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) opens the door to invite in the cavalry. Enter the erratic Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), cat lady Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), and a giant Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey, rocking whatever eccentric accessories she bears). They tell Meg that her father is still alive in deep space, but he needs rescuing.

In the family's guestroom and backyard, clunky and stilted introductions happen fast and don't impress enough to prepare for Meg the call to adventure. The Mmes appear and act perfunctorily, much like Charles Wallace does. As the most agitating and unconvincing presence, the precocious genius falls victim to many cringeworthy scenes. He's a plot device, too detached from innocence and humanity so he can perform his hidden part later. For Meg, Reid's acting is impressive in later emotional pivots, but not when Meg needs her understated disbelief. Her expressions in front of fantastical sights are dull when she should be confounded and unwilling to participate in an interstellar quest. The fast edits between half a dozen of faces worsen this weakness.

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Those deities also never rise above their one-trick quirk, and I'm not sure if it's due to their cosmic nature with less humanity than I, a human, expect. The makeup and costume departments assure these extraterrestrial beings' fashion style to be the most outlandish and intricate possible. From ever-changing dresses to colorful hair locks, their looks suit their "personalities."

When you see Kaling and her dispassionate articulation of quotes, you know what kind of movie this is. Mrs. Who is as forgettable as Mrs. Whatsit, whose half-baked weirdness is a burden on Witherspoon and whose true form has that ludicrous beauty of Finding Nemo's Mr. Ray fused with a cabbage leaf. Mrs. Which, prudent and dignified by Winfrey, has with Meg one of the few notable conversations that inspire the reluctant girl to clench her fists and stand her ground. Their shared function is to guide the Murry siblings and their new pal Calvin (Levi Miller, Pan) through transparent waves of dimensional bending into faraway worlds. Coming for them on the other side of the universe is their faceless antagonist, a dark storm called The IT (supposedly not Stephen King's eerie cosmic monster).

David Lazan's art direction serves us the planetary vistas, which comprise bleak wastelands, sterile labyrinths, and a neighborhood where creepy denizens of its hive-mind behave like automatons. Together with CGI whirls and strands of warm colors, on-location shooting helps visualize the novel's wondrous setting of the planet Uriel's glittery highlands—its lush vastness, azure sky, and the chatty flower-birds. There's clear progress of colder and colder color palette as the kids approach planet Camazotz, The IT's dwelling.

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Despite the visual grandiosity, scenes are awkward and lifeless like a boring picture book. Or worse, like a smartphone game given to tweens. The music of Ramin Djawadi (Pacific Rim, Westworld) works overtime, even too aggressively, to compensate for that dullness. Screenwriters Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell (Frozen) trim plot beats in the book's second half and rush the kids straight to their destination. The script irresponsibly handles minor details, one of which is Meg's odd interaction with a mean girl (Rowan Blanchard).

This $100-million project has obvious imprints of Disney's executive control. Its plot progression is so thinly cultivated that dialogue baffles the cast and alienates them from their characters. The building blocks add up poorly, so the direction falls short of its desired emotional gut-punch. There's little effort to stir up the rhythm and let us absorb the story because the busy frames are, ironically, too inert. Movies with kid protagonists need genre flavors; that's why IT worked—horror adds mood, texture, and kineticism to the screen.

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Actors Zack Galifianakis, Michael Peña, and André Holland fill in the minor gaps with serviceable performances. While Mrs. Murry is another underwritten character for Mbatha-Raw, her husband stands out. Like in Wonder Woman, Pine arguably shines more in supporting roles—when he doesn't have to carry a plotline. Though his screen time is limited, Pine exudes emotional vulnerability and authentic pain of failed fatherhood in front of Reid. In a minimalist scene, the choice of background color stunningly contrasts the father's despair with his daughter's fervent love.

That ambitiously big heart beats weak pulses. In this spatiotemporal voyage, the default perils try hard to characterize Meg's coming-of-age arc and awkward friendship with Calvin, but everything lacks the immediate, rewarding bliss. Wrinkle's nadir is a final act that imitates the catharsis of Interstellar, the sentimental pretentiousness of Suicide Squad, the distracting mayhem of Guardians of the Galaxy, and the thematic realization of Stephen King's IT (book version). Underwhelmed and underwhelming, DuVernay shows no trace of her flair for naturalism and intimate urgency. She must've insisted on the close-ups to bring out intense feelings, yet the disparity between Charles Wallace's guileless face and the surrounding abysses, plus shadow tentacles, is staggering.

Sagging somewhere under Wrinkle's disappointing narrative is a heartfelt story about nonconformity and self-acceptance for kids to understand their core values. Even sympathetic viewers can barely grasp that universal idea of Meg's triumph upon the darker, more tempting side—of hers and of the universe—because such filmic quality is mediocre and unengaging. It's DuVernay's costly misstep, making one want to retreat to her indie fervor in I Will Follow and Middle of Nowhere, probing nuance in Selma, and blistering scrutiny in 13th.