The opening scenes in “A Wrinkle in Time” were my favorite passages in the movie.
That’s not good. Imagine seeing “The Wizard of Oz” and enjoying the Kansas segment more than anything that happens to Dorothy and Toto once the picture goes from black and white to color.
When your top moments in an ambitious, effects-laden, sci-fi fantasy adventure take place during the brief time when the main characters are living their normal lives on Planet Earth, that’s a problem.
Unfortunately, that’s the way I felt about “A Wrinkle in Time.” We should be moved and feel exhilarated by a story involving leaps of faith and the powerful magic of love — but this journey is felled by a torrent of New Age babble, underwhelming special effects and a final act that falls flat AND makes us really dislike a major character.
Directed by the talented Ava DuVernay (“Selma”), adapted from the generations-spanning young adult classic by Madeline L’Engle, and featuring Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling, “A Wrinkle in Time” has a lot going for it.
Meet the Murrys: Mom and Dad (Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Chris Pine) are the smartest, loveliest, warmest (and I’m pretty sure the best-looking) scientists in all the land. They’re on the verge of unlocking a tesseract, aka a wrinkle in time, aka a fifth dimension, aka traveling billions of light years through the universe in the blink of an eye.
The endearing and natural Storm Reid playa 13-year-old Meg Murry, and Deric McCabe (also quite good) is her five-year-old brother, Charles Wallace, who has the intellect and empathetic qualities of someone much older.
When Charles Wallace was just a baby, dad disappeared without a trace. He’s been gone four years, during which time Meg has become a sullen loner — underachieving at school, getting picked on by the mean girls, and friendless with the exception of the ever-optimistic Charles Wallace.
Enter Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), some sort of magical being from another dimension. This is her first mission interacting with humans, and she’s a bit of bumbler and loose talker, a la Clarence in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
By the time Meg and her mother meet Mrs. Whatsit (who shows up in their living room one night), Charles Wallace has already become fast friends with her. (Mom starts to call 911 but then hangs up. No, Mom. Keep dialing. There’s a strange, grown woman in your house, and she’s buddies with your five-year-old.)
After a quick detour in which Meg bumps into the popular kid Calvin (Levi Miller), who has a crush on her and stays by her side for pretty much the rest of the movie, two more magical “Mrs.” materialize. The gentle but slightly daffy Mrs. Who (Kaling) communicates by quoting the wisdom of artists and world leaders and other historical figures. And then there’s Mrs. Which (Winfrey), who is clearly the leader of the Magical Mrs., and is like, 25 feet tall.
Yes, she’s Giant Oprah. It’s as if we’re getting a cinematic interpretation of how the rest of us mortals feel in the presence of the real Oprah.
Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which explain Meg’s dad actually pulled off the tesseract and was rocketed somewhere into another dimension — and it’s up to Meg, Charles Wallace (and Calvin, who just keeps hanging around) to tesseract with them and help them find dad, because if they don’t, well, it’ll be bad for everyone.
Off they soar into magical and wondrous and strange and sometimes forbidding dimensions, with songs by Sade and Sia and DJ Khaled with Demi Lovato soundtracking the expedition.
Every step of the way, the trio of Mrs. encourage the skeptical, self-doubting Meg to believe in herself and lead the way. Without Meg’s faith, the mission is doomed.
The deeper we go, the trippier things get. Meg enlists the help of animated, chattering, floating flowers that apparently love to gossip. Mrs. Whatsit transforms herself into a flying creature that resembles a giant leaf, and the kids hop on board for a ride. Zach Galifianakis pops up as a medium known as, yes, the Happy Medium.
Mild spoilers just ahead!
Turns out dad is more than likely on the dark planet Camazotz, ruled by the evil entity known as “IT.” In quick fashion, IT takes control of Charles Wallace and turns him against Meg. Eyes red with rage, his face marked by lightning bolt-shaped cracks, his voice sounding more and more demonic, Possessed Charles Wallace mocks Meg while hurling her about like a rag doll.
And just before THAT whole to-do, we get that scene I referenced earlier, when a supposedly sympathetic character shows a shocking lack of courage at a key moment. (And this major plot stumbling block is never addressed again.)
Movie magic is an elusive thing. “A Wrinkle in Time” is a bold film that takes big chances from start to finish, in a courageous effort to be something special. (You’re not hedging your bets when Oprah Winfrey is playing a literally large-than-life entity with bejeweled eyebrows and crazy hair.)
But for all its scenes of characters flying and soaring and zooming here and there, it never really takes off.
Disney presents a film directed by Ava DuVernay and written by Jennifer Lee, based on the novel by Madeleine L’Engle. Rated PG (for thematic elements and some peril). Running time: 115 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.