The first time Disney tried to adapt A Wrinkle in Time into a movie (a 2003 made-for-TV movie that debuted on ABC), the book's author, Madeleine L'Engle, famously told Newsweek that it met her expectations: "I expected it to be bad, and it is."
This new adaptation, directed by Ava DuVernay and given a much bigger budget, easily soars above the low bar of its predecessor. It's visually splendid, packed with imagination and offers powerful messages about love, individuality and self-acceptance.
Yet somewhere while tessering from page to screen, parts of the story lost their soul. The spiritual messages of A Wrinkle in Time, which were important to L'Engle as a Christian, got somewhat muddled along the way.
The story focuses on Meg (wonderfully played by Storm Reid), a young girl who is obviously brilliant but has been struggling with school and life in the absence of her father (Chris Pine), who mysteriously vanished four years earlier. She doesn't think much of herself, but she'll go to great lengths to defend her little brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), who at the age of 6 seems to be more capable and intelligent than most adults.
Meg, Charles Wallace and Meg's schoolmate Calvin (Levi Miller) soon have increasingly odd introductions to three mysterious women: Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), who is "young" at just over 2 billion years old, Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), who borrows famous quotes from history every time she speaks, and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), who first appears to the children in a form as large as a house.
The "Misses" say that they are part of the universe, ancient and powerful, and that they work to preserve and strengthen light. They're here to help Meg save her father, which will require folding space and time (or "tessering") to travel to other worlds in search of him. The problem, the children eventually learn, is that a dark force called IT — a literal embodiment of evil — stands in their way.
The worlds they visit are visually stunning, and there is plenty of splendor here to soak in if you just want a colorful adventure -- at least until the action culminates on Camazotz, a world taken over by darkness in ways that are unsettling and could hit close to home.
The film stumbles a bit along the way, such as when comical moments (mostly from Mrs. Whatsit) don't quite land, and in a couple of action sequences (that weren't in the source material) that feel shoehorned in to flex the film's visual effects muscles and add tension in places that didn't require it. All told, though, it's a mostly satisfying fantasy/sci-fi adventure.
The novel hasn't been a beloved classic for more than 50 years, though, by being mostly satisfying. Its spiritual (and yes, religious) core has been mostly scrubbed, replacing God with "The Universe."
While it's never preachy, L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time quotes scripture and has otherworldly creatures who sing the praises of an eternal creator. Science and spirituality blend together in a way that welcomes the non-religious but also speaks deeply to those for whom the concept of a cosmic battle between good and evil is more than just a fairy tale.
In this film, that sense of spirituality is mostly gone, and the story is more bland for it.
Other changes, big and small, could rub the book's biggest fans the wrong way. For instance, Charles Wallace, for some reason, is adopted. The Happy Medium, a woman in the book, is a man in the film (with some weird romantic tension with Mrs. Whatsit, which feels needless and out of place). And Meg's other siblings, Sandy and Dennys? They've been cut altogether.
Taken at face value and acknowledging the younger age group for which it's intended, this adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time does a lot of things right. It's an enjoyable adventure that praises intelligence, preaches self-worth, embraces diversity and celebrates light overcoming darkness. But if you're hoping for the spiritual depths of the novel, you might walk out of this good movie disappointed.
A Wrinkle in Time (B)
PG (for thematic elements and some peril). 109 minutes. In wide release.