An attempt was made. If nothing else — and there is ultimately little else — director Ava DuVernay (“Selma”) tried to use “A Wrinkle in Time” to craft an ambitious vehicle for a diverse cast and a message about loving yourself with all your flaws and rough edges. It’s just deeply unfortunate that the message and the cast are saddled with one of the worst scripts Disney has worked with in recent memory. The film is crammed to bursting with gaping plot holes and so many bewildering creative decisions that it almost feels directionless. It’s undoubtedly well-meaning, but that can’t save it. “A Wrinkle in Time” is an unmitigated disaster.
From the first scenes, the portrayal of child characters is clearly the work of adults who rarely speak to kids. Not only do the dialogue and performances make the whole ordeal feel akin to children’s theater, but the adolescents at the center of the story spend most of the movie being shuffled around without making any decisions of their own. If you want to give young people positive role models on film, those characters must be active enough to be interesting and worth looking up to. Even if the script wasn’t so flat in its approach, it would still have to contend with the soundtrack, which blankets any and every emotional scene with a cloying, generic pop song that uses buzzwords like “warrior” to make half-hearted connections to the movie. Once would be annoying, but it happens multiple times, and every time a potentially beautiful or inventive scene is robbed of its impact.
Even when they aren’t being moved about like game pieces, the characters verge on annoying and never get any real development. Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe, “Stephanie”) is meant to be a child prodigy, but instead of precocious and intelligent, he comes off as more inhuman, like if young Sheldon Cooper went on an adventure to Narnia. In one memorable scene, it’s mentioned in a line of dialogue that he was teleported ahead, and my only guess is that McCabe wasn’t available on the days they were shooting those scenes. There’s also a character named Calvin (Levi Miller, “Pan”), who literally shows up without an introduction in one scene and does nothing for the rest of the movie besides add what I’m assuming would have been a romantic subplot if writer Jennifer Lee (“Frozen”) had remembered to give him and Meg Murray (“Sleight”) any chemistry. He and Charles Wallace are two of the main leads, and neither adds anything positive to the proceedings.
No one else, other than maybe Zach Galifianakis (“Baskets”), acquits themselves particularly well, but it’s impossible to blame the actors when the writing fails so completely at character development. Mindy Kaling (“The Mindy Project”) get the worst of this. The ordinarily gifted performer is given nothing to do but react to whatever new whimsy is trying to pass for a plot. Even the visuals, while occasionally inspired in concept, are completely flat in practice; in one scene Meg travels through what seems to be a Windows screensaver of some sort, and almost all of the exciting locales teased in the trailers are covered in a single awful montage set to — you guessed it — a trite pop song. What could have been a ravishing universe of new worlds to explore amounts to little more than visual noise.
By the time Reese Witherspoon has turned into what appears to be a flying piece of lettuce and flown close enough to a gigantic projection of Oprah for a young child to lovingly stroke her face, it had hit me: “A Wrinkle in Time” isn’t a movie. It’s an advertisement for Disney’s next theme park. It’s directed, written and edited like a promo for a rollercoaster, but instead of 30 seconds, it goes on for almost two hours. Even the effects, for a $100 million film, look like they belong in a TV commercial break. There’s no sense of purpose to the pacing or development or tone or any of it. It’s hard to say, but it’s true: “A Wrinkle in Time” never lives up to its good intentions.