20-foot Oprah towers over crowded, big-hearted hot mess
A Wrinkle in Time
Starring Storm Reid, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon & Mindy Kaling
Directed by Ava DuVernay
The book on which Disney’s new $100 million A Wrinkle in Time is based was a challenging cosmic stew of quantum physics, religion, mysticism, sci-fi fantasy, dystopian gloom and young-adult angst. Though Madeline L’Engle’s 1962 novel went on to become a childhood classic, it vexed efforts to make it into a movie; many Hollywood insiders thought it was “un-filmable.” Stanley Kubrick, the genius director of 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange and The Shining, turned it down; a 2003 TV movie was a flop.
Now director Ava DuVernay may have found some secret sauce—Oprah, super-sized.
Lady O plays one of the tale’s three mysterious celestial beings—Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which—alongside Reese Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling. The three “misses” guide the movie’s young heroine, Meg (an impressive Storm Reid, 14, who made her debut in 12 Years a Slave), on a weird, wild, truly trippy trip across the universe to find her scientist father (Wonder Woman’s Chris Pine), who’s mysteriously disappeared.
When Oprah makes her first appearance as Mrs. Which, she’s bathed in heavenly backlight, dressed in shimmering silver, and 20 feet tall.
Big O is in the house—the House of Mouse!
The gentle giantess, dressed in a succession of getups that look like stylists for Beyoncé and RuPaul’s Drag Race had a royal collaboration, is clearly the big cosmic cheese. She towers over Whatsit (Witherspoon) and Who (Kaling), laying down pearls of wisdom, as they lead Meg, her friend Calvin (Levi Miller, who played Peter in 2015’s Pan) and Meg’s precocious younger brother, Charles Wallace (Derec McCabe) traveling via tesseracts, or folds in the fabric of time and space.
As Meg’s father announced before his disappearance, time-warping tesseracts allow you to zip around the universe, powered by your mind. “Ninety-one billion light years traveled, just like that!” he said. His fellow scientists scoff, the way fellow scientists always do in these kind of movies. (Didn’t they see Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar, or Loki in The Avengers? How come characters in movies, like this one, listen to Bon Jovi, keep up with Broadway plays and quote Gandhi, but don’t seem to be aware that there’s this thing called “film”?)
Could Meg’s dad have “tessered” to some faraway place, and now be unable to return? Or maybe he’s being held there against his will? The buzz around Meg’s school says he’s a deadbeat, skirt-chasing dad who probably ran off to Mexico.
Just like in the book, there’s a lot going on here, both onscreen and off.
This is the first Disney flick with a young heroine “of color” in the lead role, and the first mega-budget movie to be directed by a black woman. Those are two biggies, especially coming directly on the heels of The Black Panther, with its almost all-black cast, its black director and its nearly all-black crew, and with such a powerful, timely resonance to African-America audiences.
It’s also notable that, in this movie version of L’Engle’s story, DuVernay has quite intentionally created a blended, “colorblind” family, cast a white teen (Miller) as Meg’s tagalong friend, and hired lead actors of varying ethnic backgrounds.
And of course, there’s 20-foot Oprah, and what she represents in America as a self-made black billionaire, media mogul, philanthropist, and a living symbol of survival and success. She radiates empowerment—even when, later in the film, her character “shrinks” down to regular size.
The movie itself is packed—with themes and characters and goings-on. Zach Galifianakis plays the cave-dwelling Happy Medium; Michael Peña gets a few moments as a creepy character we meet on a beach; as Meg’s mom, Gugu Mbatha-Raw sits at home while her kids are out flitting around the galaxy.
Director DuVernay—whose previous films include the MLK biopic Selma and the Oscar-nominated documentary 13th—tries to work much of the book onto the screen, especially its messages about light overcoming darkness; unbreakable family ties; how imagination and knowledge are good things; that ordinary kids can do extraordinary things; and that it’s OK to be yourself, whether you’re a geek, a girl or a nerd—especially if you’re a geek, a girl or a nerd.
But sometimes it’s a frantic, crowded, confusing, unwieldly fit. Witherspoon morphs into a flying creature that looks like a big cabbage leaf grafted onto the back on an Avatar banshee; Mrs. Who spouts quotes from history, philosophy, literature and pop culture—Buddha, OutKast, Shakespeare, Churchill. Are Whatsit, Who and Which angels, goddesses, sorceresses, fairy godmothers, crazy cat ladies on acid or some kind of all-knowing space fashionistas? There’s a monstrous tornado, Stepford kids and Stepford moms, a spidery space nebula of pure evil, sand sandwiches, cruel classmates, gossipy teachers and talking flowers. An intense scene toward the end takes a bizarre, psycho-freakout turn toward demonic possession, which may truly frighten the intended audience of kids.
“Become one with the universe,” Winfrey’s character tells Meg. This big-hearted, bloated movie’s a crinkled, jammed, over-crammed hot mess, but Big O remains above it all, two stories tall, magisterial and wrinkle-proof. Stanley Kubrick opted out of directing A Wrinkle in Time decades ago. But now Ava DuVernay’s version is a new-age space odyssey of another kind, and hopefully it will find a young audience eager to embrace its timeless, unifying message.
In theaters March 9, 2018