The limits of imagination in “A Wrinkle in Time”

Critiquing the critics is my least favourite thing about criticism, but here we are. It’s only March and the divide between “critic film” and “audience film” has already been made. Critics vs fans has been a centuries-long conflict in our consumption of art, but the subject at the centre  in this particular case is especially baffling—Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of the popular, excellent children’s book “A Wrinkle in Time.” The long gestating work has been the subject of much excitement for multiple reasons but particularly because DuVernay’s role as director (she had, incidentally, turned down directing “Black Panther” because of creative differences). She is the first Black woman to direct a film with a budget over $100 million. And, DuVernay, a publicist turned director, has made a name of herself on her direction of independent films with smaller budgets and with more interpersonal goals than a fantasy epic.

In her direction of the film, though, and the film’s yearlong onslaught of advertising, “A Wrinkle in Time” reemphasises DuVernay’s sensibilities as an artist, with a definitive move towards diversity. The film’s lead, a young girl searching for her missing father, is a biracial character rather than the de facto white lead of the novel. Further, of the three fantastic beings that spirit her away from earth on her journey, two are played by persons of colour. The film is decisive in its desire for something more than white as default. “A Wrinkle in Time” obviously has its interests in its diversity.

The reaction from critics to the film has been less than positive. Whether written with contempt or sadness, the consensus for many is that the film is not good. But the reaction to that initial reaction has proved more compelling. America’s, and by extension Hollywood’s, consistent inability to reward non-white, and non-male creators is an issue but reaction to “Wrinkle” has been read solely through these lens, resulting in awkward standoff between two factions. Those in support of the film argue that DuVernay has been victim of critics’ disregard for non-white entertainment. In the last week, it all came to a head in the ferocious claims that the film is not “for critics” anyway (whatever that means) and the dictum – reiterated by DuVernay herself – that the film must be seen with the eyes of a child. It’s that dictum that I had in mind as I sat to watch the film on Thursday: Let me see this with the eyes of the child. But as the credits rolled at the end of it, I pondered on how baffling a recommendation that was to begin with.

Madeleine L’Engle’s original story is not necessarily cerebral, but its intrinsic nature depends on the way the characters are able to utilise their brains and imaginations to good effect. In the Murry household, a single mother lives with her two children. The entire house bathed in sadness as four years earlier her husband disappeared. They were partner scientists working on a breakthrough in science involving time travel and the mind. The family’s dull existence is interrupted by the appearance of one, then two, then three magical women, who seem to hold the key to find Mr Murry, and so Meg –his daughter and our protagonist –and her precocious younger brother, and a would-be romantic interest are transported from their less than stellar lives on earth to a multi-dimensional romp. It sounds diverting, if familiar. The bare bones of “A Wrinkle in Time,” the text, are familiar but L’Engle’s story benefits from her deft way of imagining and reimagining things like parallel universes and time travel. “A Wrinkle in Time,” the film, seems devoid of any such deftness.

And the issues that abound in “Wrinkle” seem more than just incidental. Disney is no stranger to live action films that are mixed bags, but the biggest perplexity for this one is the mundanity of it all. The film’s text (both its original story and the screenplay) hinge on their celebration of the fantastical, of the visually appealing, and yet “A Wrinkle in Time” is perplexingly banal to observe. And if it’s not banal, it’s garish. A fantasy film will live and die by its visual representations of its world. We’ve seen it from “The Wizard of Oz” all the way to the “Harry Potter” series. But “A Wrinkle in Time” is never sufficiently beguiling to be charming or invigorating. There are micro issues, like the garish hair and makeup on the trio of spirits that does less to complement and more to detract from their characters, and the odd way that the film depends on close-ups, isolating the characters in single shots rather than emphasising their relationships. But then there are macro issues, like the intergalactic romp looking diverting but so familiar. Or the dark world the characters visit being so generic in the manifestation.

Here’s an example: The last third of the film sees the trio of children separated from their adult chaperones. They must travel to the planet of darkness, a planet with many faces ruled by a creature called The IT (no relation the clown in “It”). The visual representation of this place of darkness is key to the oddly limpid aesthetic of the film. Here the film is set up with an opportunity to interrogate its characters’ psyche as surely a world of many faces will seek to explore the things that make each specific character tick (think of the manifestation of Pennywise in “It”). Instead, though, the evil here is manifested in ways that divorce structure from content. “A Wrinkle in Time” is teeming over with platitudes – be yourself, love is the answer, be a change agent, kindness can win out – that few would argue against. But there is no formal, aesthetic or structural panache to the delivery of those platitudes, so what we are left with is just genericism. The film seems to lopsidedly feel that a 40-foot hologram of Oprah beatifically projecting grandeur is a moment demanding awe and that’s the central wrinkle in this “Wrinkle.” And the actors seem at sea with the world they inhabit. No one emerges from the film unscathed, with Gugu Mbatha-Raw only coming off the best just because she has the least to do within the film.

The film projects rather than develops, indicates instead of embodying. It is just not interesting. And so, yes, it is not the worst thing in its genre but “A Wrinkle in Time” is not entertaining enough. It plods along. Arguing that we should see it with a child’s eyes asks for us to do the imagining for the film, as children are so prone to do. But why visualise a literary experience and then ask us to do the work? We might as well just read the book.

“A Wrinkle in Time” is currently playing at Princess Movie Theatres and Caribbean Cinemas.

Photo saved as wrinkle poster

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