There are a lot of reasons to love "A Wrinkle in Time," but not necessarily many reasons to like it -- unless you're a child, which is of course the demographic for which this big new Disney movie was ultimately made.
In this and so many other ways, "A Wrinkle in Time" winds up acting as more a cultural flashpoint than just an actual movie -- for everyone but children, who, again, are the target demographic.
The context is important here: Madeleine L'Engle's beloved Newberry Medal-winning YA novel, "A Wrinkle in Time," has been a staple for generations of pre-teens, who have embraced its science-influenced adventures and taken its Christianity-infused (but in no way proselytizing) moral lessons to heart. It is a complicated, interdimensional story with great big concepts embodied by spiritual beings and filled with speculative science, and even though it has a precocious young girl as its main character, it had largely been deemed unfilmable. Better to let it live in imaginations than present a watered-down (or far too complicated) version on screen.
Then Disney announced that it had hired Ava DuVernay, America's leading black female filmmaker, to take on the challenge. This was cause for mass celebration: Disney is the world leader in creating immersive alternate worlds, and DuVernay, coming off the Oscar-nominated "Selma," was rightly considered a vital voice as well as an expert filmmaker. The hype was massive and immediate, and only grew as DuVernay announced the cast: Meg Murray, the teen protagonist, would be played by Storm Reid, a young black girl, while two of the three goddess-like characters would be played by Mindy Kaling and Oprah Winfrey. Reese Witherspoon would round out the trio of women, while Meg's younger brother was to be a young Asian boy.
Because American audiences see whiteness as the default, even when a character's race is not mentioned on paper, these announcements were rightly greeted as major progress. A woman was going to be directing three massive female stars of all different ethnicities, and young girls would be getting a new hero who needs only to find courage in herself, not from a dashing love interest. The ad campaign, filled with bright colors and trippy visuals, was breathtaking, and on the heels of the massive success of "Black Panther," it was impossible to over-hype this movie.
Which is what makes this such a complicated review to write.
Here's the deal: Just like its ad campaign, "A Wrinkle in Time" is incredibly colorful, both in its ensemble cast and its massive heavenly landscapes; it looks like a kaleidoscope of bliss, and had it been released on 4/20, plenty of people would have been sneaking their own baked goods into the theater in preparation for a rip-roaring time. And as expected, it is incredibly affirming; Meg learns to believe in herself, and to love her individuality in a word threatened by dim conformity. She gets closure with her missing mathematician father (Chris Pine), who turns out to be more hero than deadbeat dad.
But really, that's all it is, at least during its actual run time. Mrs. Whatsit (Witherspoon), Mrs. Which (Winfrey) and Mrs. Who (Kaling) are more extravagantly dressed guardian angels than teachers, and Meg's hero's journey is far less compelling than in the original book. There, she was impatient and impulsive, and has to learn maturity. It's a far more complicated lesson than what she gets here, but there probably wasn't much of a choice -- how do you have an affirming, empowering movie for young girls of color that basically tells them to quiet down a bit? That wouldn't fly today, understandably.
Oprah more or less plays Oprah in technicolor drag, with silver studded eyebrows to top off the insane look. She's built her empire on making people feel good about themselves, and that's her role here -- her warnings against the coming dark "It" double as inspirational speeches, and you almost expect her to give everyone in the audience a car. Hey, it felt like a possibility, given how truly bizarre and confusing the plot gets.
All that being said, there's no doubt that kids will love this movie. It's bright and wacky and empowering! Sure, the CGI isn't great, but kids watch mediocre cartoons all the time. And there are plenty of movies that kids loved but didn't hit the mark for adults -- "Hook" comes to mind, since it's a Disney movie -- and that's OK! So "A Wrinkle in Time" isn't great, but it's something an entire generation will remember.