*/**** Image A- Sound A- Extras B
starring Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Chris Pine
screenplay by Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell, based on the novel by Madeleine L'Engle
directed by Ava DuVernay
by Walter Chaw In Beyond the Lights, another, much better film featuring Gugu Mbatha-Raw (directed by another woman of colour, Gina Prince-Bythewood), there is a moment where her character decides to un-straighten her hair and own who she is, damn the torpedoes, and it lands like what a revolution feels like. Or, at least, it lands like what a personal epiphany feels like. In Ava DuVernay's A Wrinkle In Time, a little white boy named Calvin (Pan's Levi Miller), with whom heroine Meg (Storm Reid) is creepily smitten, tells her, twice (twice), that he likes her hair, getting an awkward brush off the first time and a shy "thanks" the second. This is what passes for empowerment in a film fixated on empowerment. I think it's probably a mistake to have Meg's sense of self-worth hinge on the approval--at least in this cultural moment--of a white dude. There are fraught politics around a black woman's hair and A Wrinkle In Time uses it as a cruel tease again when there's talk by the evil IT (voiced by David Oyelowo) of Meg straightening her locks before being presented with a "perfect" doppelgänger, free of her nerd glasses, glammed up, hair un-kinked, as one possible outcome for her. It's the key visual metaphor in a film garnering some measure of praise mainly for how it's not for anyone who is "cynical" (or an adult). That, and its visual audacity--which in any other context would be derided for its overreliance on the same, along with the picture's anachronistic amateurishness. Turning Reese Witherspoon into a smug piece of salad is probably not the best use of all those millions of dollars.
The problem is that A Wrinkle In Time is subject to the Linda Woolverton/Jennifer Lee (who co-scripted)/mainstream Disney school of feminism that relies on earnest and terrible over-writing, vapid reaction shots of supportive grins, and creative teams doing their very best to be better than the requirements of scripts so sanitized they come wrapped in those little paper bands. It's the Lisa Simpson or Oprah's Book Club school of storytelling: proselytizing, bullying, exhausting. No one would argue that A Wrinkle in Time's heart isn't in the right place; no one would argue that they can endure more than a few minutes of it. It's an eight-year-old's screed, and goes on for an hour and a half. Would that the film had carried forward the book's central conceit that the true evil in the universe is not black-tentacled low self-esteem, but absolute homogeneous conformity. The trailer-spoiled scene of a suburban cul-de-sac populated by kids bouncing balls in lockstep unison is itself spoiled in the movie when the rage for multicultural representation demands that all the kids be racially diverse rather than lily-white. The multiculturalism neuters the impact of this tableau of stifling uniformity. Buried in here is a version of A Wrinkle In Time that is subversive and dangerous to the White Evangelical American status quo. (Ditto, as it happens, Black Panther.) It's implied that it's hazardous to eat the food in this bad place, and when the suburban gambit fails, the heroes find themselves on a beach beset with tourists, which, you know, maybe we're talking about tourism now, or colonialism and the poverty gap? No, we're not. In the terror to not offend, the film ultimately makes sense only as a vehicle for the empowerment of a specific individual--so specific that the film isn't really for anyone (else). The mind boggles a bit at what DuVernay might have done had she been allowed to write the screenplay, too.
What's left is Meg going into the Shimmer to retrieve her lost dad (Chris Pine), a moony NASA scientist who believes that if your heart is in the right place, you can teleport to a beach. He's been gone for four years, leaving behind Meg, his wife (Mbatha-Raw, an A-lister in the making), and the absolutely insufferable Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe, a 9-year-old actor asked perhaps unfairly to shoulder the load of not just a sprightly savant, but also, eventually, a possessed demon child). Charles Wallace (always first and last name) introduces Meg to a trio of supernatural missus: Mrs. Whatsit (Witherspoon), Who (Mindy Kaling), and Which (Oprah), who promptly tell Meg that she's beautiful, unique, special, smart, worthy, and did we say beautiful (because she is, inside and out)? Forget smart--she's brilliant, and she should embrace her faults as strengths. She's a warrior. This is set against a little montage of Meg wandering her school's hallways, one shot backgrounded by a wall of women authors, the next a portrait of Maya Angelou. That's right, this school was built by O, THE OPRAH MAGAZINE. When Mrs. Which first materializes, she's twenty feet tall. Told she's the wrong size, Oprah bellows, "Who are we to judge what is the right size?" Yes, it's the kind of movie where you feel vaguely scolded for wanting it to be better.
There are already arguments about how A Wrinkle in Time shouldn't be asked to shoulder a sociological message, but doesn't it take on a heavy responsibility in suggesting that the chief Heather/tormentor of our Meg has a body dysmorphic disorder and that our dreamy Prince Charming has an abusive father? Heavy issues are raised and then left to wilt. It becomes clear that what ails the picture are the very things its heroes are tasked to confront. When the material's message of the horrors of ignorance and forced conformity is stripped and replaced by more general Stuart Smalley affirmations, what remains is this movie for very young children and people who want so desperately to like it they'll ignore that right smack in the middle of this mess is a scene lifted directly from Episode I. "Fear leads to anger" indeed, Yoda Winfrey. A Wrinkle in Time is a disaster because it doesn't practice the pride and courage of what it preaches. It's a bad film because it's so afraid to fail. Only at the movies is the phrase "made for kids" a dire warning instead of a guarantee of quality and value. Originally published: March 11, 2018.
THE 4K UHD DISC
by Bill Chambers A Wrinkle in Time docks on 4K UHD disc in a 2.39:1, 2160p presentation. Somehow, the film's Thomas Kinkade kitsch is more palatable in HDR (sorry, no Dolby Vision option) than it is on the accompanying Blu-ray. The colours are not just more vibrant but better defined as well, and the image loses the slight yellow cast of the SDR alternative. For what it's worth, I did think the saturation could be dialled back a bit in the interiors of Meg's house, where the wooden fixtures take on a red bias indistinguishable from Reese Witherspoon's Bozo wig. Highlights are well-managed, varying in intensity instead of going full-bore each time something sparkles or shimmers (which is often). The biggest test is the spherical white room in which the kids find themselves at a pivotal juncture: it's a brilliant, Apple Store white yet not remotely obnoxious. Curiously, these same walls are closer to mint green in 1080p. Skin tones have added depth in UHD and there is the expected spike in fine detail--hair, an important aspect of the film, has an especially tactile quality in 4K. (Though I haven't been able to confirm the resolution of its D.I., A Wrinkle in Time was shot digitally at 3.4K.) The transfer does suffer from black crush in the infrequent dark scenes, a detriment to engaging with a nightmarish climax that takes place in a pitch-black void, but the problem is worse on Blu-ray in the absence of high dynamic range to amplify the slivers of light that draw our eye across the frame. An attendant Dolby Atmos mix has a lot of power compared to recent Disney fare, if not a lot of bass. Although I was acutely aware I was missing out on something by not having height channels, I enjoyed the sometimes-gimmicky surround usage and Ramin Djawadi's score, "enfolding" the viewer in its warmth as it does.
Director Ava DuVernay, producer Jim Whitaker, first assistant director Michael J. Moore, VFX supervisor Rich McBride, co-screenwriter Jennifer Lee, editor Spencer Averick, and production designer Naomi Shohan reunite for a crowded feature-length commentary exclusive to the Blu-ray. (I recommend turning on the optional subtitles to keep track of who's speaking.) It's a forum for the filmmakers to rationalize their often-baffling artistic choices that simultaneously functions as a primer on changes to the text for those unfamiliar with Madeleine L'Engle's book. I for one didn't realize that the adoption of Charles Wallace was a new spin on the character--one that is celebrated herein for broadening the family theme/dynamic without regard for how klutzily this has been incorporated into the narrative. As you might expect from the presence of the First AD, the discussion can get arcane for the casual viewer, although the conversational style remains loose and family-friendly.
Video-based BD extras begin and more or less end with "A Journey Through Time" (30 mins., HD), which opens with praise for DuVernay and ends in much the same way. Oprah's right when she says it's inspiring and monumental that an African-American woman was handed a production of this size, and this making-of engenders some affection for the undertaking wholly independent of the end result. (Oprah, who says she modelled her character on Maya Angelou and Glinda the Good Witch, also at one point yells "Supernova!" exactly as you'd expect.) I liked the stuff about the mostly practical sets--especially seeing the aforementioned white room on a soundstage (it looks surprisingly small)--and how DuVernay insisted on shooting the school scenes at the real Crenshaw High. Most of the piece is devoted to the actors, though Chris Pine never commands the spotlight despite getting in some of the best soundbites. (On newcomer Storm Reid: "[She] has an incredible bandwidth of emotion to draw from.") A section of Deleted Scenes (10 mins., HD) is noteworthy for showing both actual science and someone uttering the phrase "a wrinkle in time." It reminds me of when they remade The Postman Always Rings Twice and cut the line explaining the movie's title.
Other elisions include a part where Meg sleeps inside a giant Cousin Itt, and another where Calvin tells Meg, in not so many words, that his father beats him, clarifying a moment in the aforementioned documentary where actor Levi Miller says that Calvin knows what it's like to be treated badly. Calvin, with heartbreaking hopefulness, blames the goofy sci-fi dark forces on Earth for his father's abusiveness; why isn't this in the picture?! Rounding out the platter is an undistinguished blooper reel (2 mins., HD), plus two music videos--DJ Khaled's "I Believe," featuring Demi Lovato, and Chloe x Halle's "Warrior"--tethered, to their detriment, to A Wrinkle in Time's aesthetics. A digital copy of the film is packaged in the keepcase.