Credit: Atsushi Nishijima/Disney

There’s a great scene in Ava DuVernay’s Selma where David Oyelowo’s Martin Luther King Jr. describes his mission. He wants the front page, nightly news. “That requires drama,” he explains, and for a moment the great man becomes a razzle-dazzle PR exec, the Greatest Showman for Justice. DuVernay was a publicist before she became a director, which could explain how she caught something so visceral and meta about King’s brilliance. Calling Selma a movie about brand management is dumb, obviously, but DuVernay found a thoughtful, complex, modern resonance in the subject matter. You almost felt you were watching King film his own biopic.

So Selma was an impressive triumph over the clichés of Hollywood hagiography. With A Wrinkle in Time, DuVernay has set herself another difficult task. Madeleine L’Engle wrote her beloved novel decades ago — before the march in Selma, in fact, and before the whole fantasy genre sprouted generations of tropes: Chosen One, Elder Mystic, the Dark (bad!) and the Light (good!). So this listless film’s real bummer is how dispiritingly it hits the marks of the modern blockbuster. In Selma, you watched a man print his own legend. Wrinkle feels too much like a reprint.

We start with Meg Murry (Storm Reid), sad and lonely like the best teens always are. Her scientist dad (Chris Pine) went missing four years ago. Her little brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), is “brilliant, but odd, so odd,” actual explanatory dialogue from a script that always tells and never shows. They meet three spaced-out fairy godmothers. Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) is exuberant and talkative, a daffy rookie angel like Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life. Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) speaks only in famous quotes (Shakespeare, Buddha, PG-rated Churchill, PG-rated OutKast), like an insufferable Instagram account brought to life. And Mrs. Which initially appears as a 12-foot-tall titan glimmering with ethereal sun dust. She’s played by Oprah Winfrey; no special effects required, presumably.

All their costumes are wild, and such gaudy delights are the only delights, really. The heavenly trio take Meg on a father hunt, folding (“tessering”) space-time to travel to a series of worlds. So DuVernay captures L’Engle’s cosmic female vision, splendidly diversifies the cast … and then sends everyone 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. (Attendees at the lecture scoff, scoff, at his ridiculous ideas, the way characters in the first reel used to scoff at Dr. Frankenstein.)

So A Wrinkle in Time hits that unfortunate un-sweet spot common to big-budget science-fiction/fantasy, where the spectacle feels more summarized than experienced. (Not helping much: Ramin Djawadi’s oddly terrible score, screaming emotions like an overgrown thought balloon covering up its own illustration.) Almost nothing works, but there are bursts of real camp energy. In one scene, Witherspoon suddenly shapeshifts into a giant flying leaf, probably the next hot trend after urban beekeeping. Later, Meg and her friends visit a surreal conformist suburb that becomes a mob of color-blasted beach umbrellas — images of Norman Rockwell-ish Americana gone nightmarish. And Michael Peña pops up on the beach for a cheerfully freaky near-cameo, a demon conjured out of the ninth circle of Margaritaville.

There’s also a lovely airborne shot early in the movie, with the camera gliding down over Meg’s neighborhood. I don’t think the film ever quite says where the Murry family lives, but it looks like greater Los Angeles, all giraffe’s-neck palms and lined-up cars and gridded houses. Urbanity stretching towards a hazy horizon: That single stunning image is more fantastical than anything in the actual fantasy sequences. Once Wrinkle in Time heads to outer space, it develops an unsettling plasticity that only really recalls something like the ecstatic artifice of the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer. But the brief invigorating gusts of Weird Disney surrealism are asphyxiated by layers of Corporate Disney life-coachery. The Mrs. W’s are meant to be pushing Meg toward heroism — rescuing her father, rescuing herself, rescuing everything. But as a side effect, Meg becomes a passenger in her own hero’s journey. Reid gives a fine, introspective performance, but the structure and style of Wrinkle in Time force her to mostly stare offscreen at things.

And cute boy Calvin (bland Levi Miller) does nothing but stare at her. “You have great hair,” he says. “No, I don’t,” she responds, embarrassed about her natural look. Later, the film’s Big Evil Thing taunts Meg with an image of her “better” self: popular, cool, hair straightened. So much to consider here: culture, race, Meg’s self-image, the brutal society challenging that image. Depressingly, A Wrinkle in Time has less in common with its spiky protagonist than her plastic doppelganger, flattened into familiar wonders, a sincere attempt at empowerment crushed into preachy dullness. C

A Wrinkle in Time
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