A Wrinkle in Time is one of those books that it took me ages to get around to reading. Part of this is that it's just never been the huge hit in the UK as it is in America, where it's a commonly read book in schools and the favourite childhood book of many. I finally read it a few years ago, reading my friend's battered school copy on a visit to the States. It's a beautiful book, a wonderfully creative and empowering story for youngsters, about courage and acceptance, and while it's clearly very heavily influenced by Madeleine L'Engle's strong Christian beliefs, it's about being open to other cultures and ways of doing things.
Given its reputation, it's surprising the novel hasn't been adapted for cinema before now. Disney made a previous attempt, a fairly terrible TV movie fifteen years ago, and there have been various stage versions, even an opera. Still, a big budget treatment seems well overdue for such a rich fantasy story. Disney's new treatment has skirted some controversy, having removed the Christian undertones and also cast the Murrys as a mixed race family, with predictable results in some quarters (don't read the comments sections on any site covering the movie, unless you enjoy reading white men crying over how casting black people in these roles is somehow “racist”).
To be fair, while the race of the central characters isn't actually important to the story as such, having a mixed race family in such a prominent Disney production is a big deal, and it represents a move forward in both race and gender representation in front of, and behind, the camera. There are more films lately with heroic female protagonists, but how many where the hero is a young girl of colour? Added to which we have Gugu Mbatha-Raw playing her mother, Dr. Kate Murry (it would have been extremely unusual for a black woman to hold a prestigious academic position in 1960 when the book was written, albeit not unheard of, but while it is less remarkable now it is still something of note). Behind the camera is Ava DuVernay, the first black woman to direct a megabudget film (a production with a budget of over $100 million). While not the point of the film, the multiracial production is worth celebrating.
The cast is impressive throughout. Storm Reid is central as Meg, devastated by the disappearance of her father but still a gifted and exceptional young girl. She goes through more of a developmental journey here than in the book, learning to accept both her strengths and weaknesses and massively improving her confidence as she goes through her adventures. This is the sort of character arc only boys usually get. Her younger and even more remarkable brother, Charles Wallace, is played by Deric McCabe, with a very assured performance. Charles Wallace, here an adopted member of the family rather than Meg's biological brother, is such a genius that he innately understands the motions of space and time that allow the characters to “tesser” across the universe.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw is as excellent as always, while Chris Pine makes a strong impression as her husband Dr. Alex Murry, the brilliant but headstrong physicist (or perhaps metaphysicist) who loses himself across the universe. After his performance here, I can finally see him as playing Captain Kirk long into career, as Shatner did. We also have a strong turn from the young Levi Miller as Meg's new friend/potential boyfriend Calvin O'Keefe, who takes on some of her more openly adventurous spirit from the books, while she takes on his lack of trust.
The alien cast is an unusual one. Reece Witherspoon is absolutely not how I imagined Mrs. Whatsit, but her scatty, irritable mad woman next door works really well, and in fairness, Witherspoon is far weirder than her usual roles ever let her be. Mindy Kaling, who more often performs voice-only roles, here plays the largely silent Mrs. Who, who only speaks in wise quotes, like a sort of living meme. The strangest casting is that of Oprah Winfrey as Mrs. Which, a decision I was quite ready to mock. I'm not the biggest fan of Oprah, by a long chalk, but she's actually really very good here, as the powerful and noble alien. She's another major divergence from the novel, though, in which Mrs. Which is mostly unseen and incorporeal, although having the movie version unable to settle on a reasonable size when she first manifests is a nice touch.
There are other major changes. The Murry twins are gone completely, although their role in the novel is not particularly vital and can be absorbed by other characters. The sidetrip to the planet Ixchel is excised completely, meaning that we miss out of the incomparable Aunt Beast. The Happy Medium is still there, thankfully, but played unexpectedly by Zack Galifianakis and quite unrecognisable as the same character. The events on the dark planet Camazotz are very different as well, although suitably unsettling and exciting.
Overall, I'm left with the conviction that this film just doesn't feel like A Wrinkle in Time. It's a very different thing to the book, and I can imagine that most of the book's committed fans will find it hard to love this. However, I found it very enjoyable, as a family fantasy film in its own right, and it's certainly a visual treat, with strange vistas from across the universe. Watch it with your daughter, or if you're man enough to watch a film targeted at little girls.