A Wrinkle in Time reviews tesser between 'thrilling' and 'heartbreaking disappointment'

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A Wrinkle in Time has big names like Oprah Winfrey and Reese Witherspoon, direction by acclaimed filmmaker Ava DuVernay, and an empowering message for young girls — especially young girls of color. But not all critics were floored by Disney’s live-action adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s novel.

EW’s Darren Franich called the film “a sincere attempt at empowerment crushed into preachy dullness,” and there were many others from the first round of press screenings with similar sentiments. Variety called it “wildly uneven,” The Hollywood Reporter noted the film “doesn’t charm or disarm,” and Forbes deemed it a “heartbreaking disappointment.”

Others, meanwhile, were overcome by this “uniquely daring” and “disarmingly earnest” film and its “extravaganza of larger-than-life characters.”

Following Selma, the Netflix documentary 13th, and OWN’s Queen Sugar, DuVernay brings to life the story of Meg Murry (Storm Reid), a young girl who journeys (“tessers”) to other worlds in search of her missing father (Chris Pine). Accompanied by her friend Calvin (Levi Miller) and three galactic beings — Mrs. Whatsit (Witherspoon), Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), and Mrs. Which (Winfrey) — Meg is encouraged to find the strength within herself and become a warrior.

Penned by Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell, A Wrinkle in Time also features Michael Pena, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Zach Galifianakis, André Holland, David Oyelowo, and Bellamy Young.

“Keep your expectations in check, and you might be pleasantly surprised,” Variety‘s Peter Debruge writes.

Read some of the mixed reviews below.

Atsushi Nishijima/Disney

Darren Franich (Entertainment Weekly)
“DuVernay captures L’Engle’s cosmic female vision, splendidly diversifies the cast of characters … and then sends all those characters to planets that all look like green-screen calamities, as colorful and infuriating as Apple’s rainbow wheel of death. You feel some hesitation in the storytelling here. The three Mrs. W’s overexplain every wonder with PowerPoint precision. Anything they don’t explain gets covered by Pine, trapped in a series of horrid flashbacks, including one where he delivers an actual PowerPoint lecture about the film’s psycho-spiritual cosmology.”

Peter Debruge (Variety)
“Despite such bold choices as casting Oprah Winfrey as an all-wise celestial being and rejecting the antiquated assumption that the lead characters ought to be white, A Wrinkle in Time is wildly uneven, weirdly suspenseless, and tonally all over the place, relying on wall-to-wall music to supply the missing emotional connection and trowel over huge plot holes.”

Todd McCarthy (The Hollywood Reporter)
“Only the faintest glimmers of genuine, earned emotion pierce through the layers of intense calculation that encumber Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time. Disney’s lavish adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s fantastical 1962 book (there were four sequels) about a girl’s journey through multiple dimensions to find her long-missing father may provide enough distractions to keep kids in the lowest double-digits age range interested. All the same, DuVernay’s first big-budget studio studio extravaganza after breaking through with Selma and the great documentary 13th feels cobbled together with many diverse parts rather that coalesced into an engaging whole. Even if this is widely consumed by the target audience, it doesn’t charm or disarm.”

Alonso Duralde (The Wrap)
“DuVernay and screenwriters Jennifer Lee (Frozen) and John Stockwell (Bridge to Terabithia) give it their all, imbuing as much epic grandeur as they can into a story that seems to take place over the course of a languid afternoon. Audiences willing to forgive the script flaws in The Wizard of Oz — why doesn’t Glinda tell Dorothy right away that the slippers can take her home? — will be rewarded with an extravaganza of larger-than-life characters and mind-bending locations if they extend the same slack to A Wrinkle in Time.”

A.O. Scott (The New York Times)
“Fans of the book and admirers of Ms. DuVernay’s work — I include myself in both groups — can breathe a sigh of relief, and some may also find that their breath has been taken away. Mine was, once or twice, though I would describe the overall experience as satisfaction rather than awe. A Wrinkle in Time, faithful to the affirmative, democratic intelligence of the book, is also committed to serving its most loyal and susceptible audience. This is, unapologetically, a children’s movie, by turns gentle, thrilling and didactic, but missing the extra dimension of terror and wonder that would have transcended the genre. Thankfully, though, Ms. DuVernay has dispensed with the winking and cutesiness that are Hollywood’s preferred ways of pandering and condescending to grown-ups.”

Justin Chang (The Los Angeles Times)
“Whisked alongside the characters through one space-time wormhole after another, I found myself wishing that this Wrinkle were more focused, more disciplined — that its ceaseless flow of fantastical images cohered into a revelatory new application of L’Engle’s themes and insights, rather than an earnest, sometimes awkward reiteration of them. But if not all the film’s visual gambits and expository shortcuts pay off, they nonetheless turn out to be in service of a uniquely daring and adventurous sort of cinematic translation.”

Matt Singer (ScreenCrush)
“One scene bleeds into the next with little flow or tension; the kids are told they can’t jump (or ‘tesser’) to a specific location and then they immediately do it anyway; characters go missing and then return without explanation. And the whole time Calvin, Charles Wallace, and Mrs. Which constantly pepper Meg with compliments, reminding her that she is talented and brilliant and beautiful. (Calvin fawns over Meg’s hair several times. Calvin, my dude, you’re making it weird.) They’re not wrong, and as a young woman of color, Reid’s Meg is a refreshingly unusual protagonist for a studio blockbuster. Still, the affirmations are so heavy and so persistent (‘Love is the frequency!’) that it sometimes feels like A Wrinkle in Time is adapted from a New Age self-help book instead of a classic science-fiction novel.”

Angie Han (Mashable)
A Wrinkle in Time is for all the girls – and boys, and non-binary kids, and teens and adults and the elderly – who’ve ever been a Meg. It’s a flawed film that entreats us to love flawed things, up to and including our very own selves. Maybe that sounds like a hoary cliché now. It didn’t feel like one when I was watching the movie, which is so disarming[ly] earnest that I fell completely under its spell.”

April Wolfe (LA Weekly)
“I’ll get this out of the way: I haven’t read Madeleine L’Engle’s beloved science fiction adventure novel A Wrinkle in Time, but I have seen Ava DuVernay’s heart-on-its-sleeve adaptation. No doubt there will be those who compare and contrast the book and the film, as L’Engle’s words have touched the childhoods of so many, but I’m going in fresh. And while I cannot fold time and return to my youth to experience what it would be like to find comfort in the fictions of a woman who deeply understood children’s fears and insecurities, I can say that as an adult, I was transported by DuVernay’s adaptation to the mindset of my girlhood — embarrassing insecurities and all. This is not a cynic’s film. It is, instead, unabashedly emotional.”

Kevin Fallon (The Daily Beast)
“It’s the rare live-action family film to feel like a bonafide kids’ movie, with all the trappings of a screenplay catered to that demographic — albeit one that can at times feel on-the-nose, or more didactic than wondrous. It’s a film with lots of Disney-sparkled bells and whistles. It’s also a film that is so pure, to the extent it’s almost jarring to take in given all that’s going on in the world and how jaded we’ve allowed entertainment to become. But all of that is secondary to the film’s — and we’re wary of turning anyone off by even saying the word — importance.”

Scott Mendelson (Forbes)
“While it is an unquestionable moral good, it is also, as a movie, a heartbreaking disappointment. A Wrinkle in Time is the very definition of a noble failure. It looks great and features a cast to die for, but it lurches from one awkwardly-staged episodic moment to the next, with little in the way of tension, urgency or defined stakes. Its splashy cast all seem to be acting in slightly different movies, with few of them (among the children and adults) hitting the right tone for the admittedly challenging source material. Even with strong imagery and its value beyond profits or IP extension, it barely holds together as a stand-alone 109-minute feature.”

A Wrinkle in Time will open in theaters on Friday.