‘A Wrinkle in Time’ has Ava DuVernay, Oprah and a $100 million budget. But it still needs a better villain.
The movie tries to replace swords and wands with self-esteem
Disney’s new adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time sports plenty of shiny features that would normally scream “smash hit!” It’s based on one of the most beloved works of children’s literature of the 20th century. It’s got a superstar director in Ava DuVernay, the first black woman to direct a film with a production budget of $100 million. And it’s got Oprah, America’s very own mononymed mistress with the Midas touch.
Alas, one of the foundational elements of Wrinkle is faulty, and it ain’t DuVernay or Oprah.
For starters, the bad guy is named IT. (Really? Does he have a cousin?) IT has no apparent motive for its evil ways. It’s difficult to visualize, and the path to defeating IT is equally enigmatic.
Those are tough hurdles to clear. The most successful and ubiquitous children’s movie franchise in recent history, the Harry Potter series, is an epic story about a struggle between good and bad, love and hate, dark and light. Minus the “most successful and ubiquitous” part, that description could apply to the 2005 film adaptation of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, or to the new A Wrinkle in Time.
Yet Wrinkle, co-written by Jennifer Lee (Frozen, Wreck-It Ralph, Zootopia) and Jeff Stockwell (Bridge to Terabithia, Children of the Machine) approaches existential questions of good versus evil differently from those other movies. It’s not just because the protagonist, Meg Murry, is a biracial black girl played by Storm Reid. It’s because, at its core, A Wrinkle in Time is about defeating the demons within yourself.
To summarize those two days your 10-year-old self spent speed-reading: Meg, a teenage outcast, must journey to another planet to save her physicist father from IT, and she must do so by traveling through space and time using a concept her father discovered: the tesseract. Meg is aided by the help of three celestial fairy godmothers, known collectively as the Mrs: Mrs Which (Oprah Winfrey), Mrs Who (Mindy Kaling), and Mrs Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon). Accompanied by her precocious younger brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) and her school friend Calvin O’Keefe (Levi Miller), the trio of children must find Mr. Murry (Chris Pine), defeat IT and bring the Murry patriarch home.
Across Madeleine L’Engle, C.S. Lewis and J.K. Rowling, there are tropes that tick off some religious adherents for veering too close to the story of Jesus. Each features a hero that is rewarded for self-sacrifice with resurrection. In the Narnia chronicles, it’s Aslan the lion. Harry Potter must die willingly before he can come back to kill Voldemort. Meg gets knocked into unconsciousness struggling against IT before being resurrected by an alien creature she calls Aunt Beast, who, regrettably, is missing from the movie.
In the film adaptation of Wrinkle, Lee and Stockwell lean heavily into the teachings of the Episcopal Church that God (as love and light) exists within us all, that we can all be deputized as “warriors” against evil. L’Engle was a devoted member of the church. She served as a librarian and writer in residence at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. The Mrs are in search of warriors to defeat IT, which shows up as a tentacled black shadow spreading across the universe. As villains go, IT is one of the most abstract in children’s fantasy.
According to Oprah/Mrs Which, IT “invades the place inside of us where happiness and joy lives and replaces it with jealousy, judgment, pain and despair. … This is what IT does until fear takes over. Fear turns to rage. Rage turns to violence, until there’s a tipping point.”
A Wrinkle in Time was published in 1962, when the country was still living in the shadow of World War II and the threat of fascism. One of the most menacing elements of IT is that it wants to create a planet and a universe ruled by one brain, where humans are automatons who have submitted to a vision of perfection and symmetry as defined by IT. In L’Engle’s version of Wrinkle, IT has a physical manifestation as a hideous, disembodied human brain.
But those details are missing from the film, and in subtracting them, evil doesn’t really have a motivation or a purpose. It just is. The White Witch and Voldemort offer physical, humanlike representations of evil, both of which are hungry for power and uncontested control. At the very least, you can call them sociopaths. A Wrinkle in Time forces us to wonder how you get children to understand evil as a nebulous, ill-defined force. And what’s more, how do you get them to fight it? Mrs Which does it by showing Meg a micro-vision of evil, the way it shows up in her life in the form of cruel classmates, or Calvin’s emotionally abusive father. She does it while they’re visiting a character called The Happy Medium (Zach Galifianakis) a yogi/guru sort of figure who’s all about “balance.”
Asking children to find the hero within themselves by meditating and finding spiritual balance and self-acceptance seems awfully tough. But is it any more unreasonable than leaving a child destined to fight a murderous, power-hungry, sociopathic wizard who splits and deposits pieces of his evil soul around the world so he can keep living? Is it any more arduous than assuming the mantle of royalty as a teenager and leading a world of mythical woodland creatures into battle with a witch who’d rather turn everything around her to stone than tolerate dissent? Perhaps not. Though it certainly doesn’t lend itself well to training montages.
A Wrinkle in Time asks its young audience to “be a warrior” by loving itself. But it doesn’t really illustrate how a young person does that. And when the fate of the universe depends on internal journeys, it inadvertently makes it seem as if everyone else who faced off against IT prior to Meg lost because they didn’t love themselves enough.
That’s a terribly grim flip side, and it’s a good argument for why heroes are so often “chosen”: It takes the heat off well-meaning deputies who can’t kill Voldemort or the White Witch. That’s why so many fantasy heroes are, by definition, exceptional. Harry is The Chosen One, as he smirkingly tells his friend Hermione. The child protagonists of C.S. Lewis’ imagination are royalty, as designated by Narnian prophecy.
Then there’s Meg, who is a hero simply because she believes in herself?
To be sure, challenging these tropes is a worthwhile pursuit. And in doing so, DuVernay also challenges us to accept a heroine whose superpower isn’t rooted in a male model of train, fight, win. Meg’s journey feels organic to the psychological journey so many girls face: learning not to despise themselves for not measuring up to gendered standards of beauty and behavior that are responsible for so much internal misery. Meg wins by doing something that’s ordinary but difficult, something no amount of spell casting or swordsmanship can do.
Does it ultimately make sense? Upon completion of her mission, the Mrs tell Meg that she’s joined the ranks of Gandhi, Frida Kahlo and Jane Austen, but they fail to show how or why. Aside from the fact that Wrinkle screenwriters designated them as “warriors,” the audience is left to wonder: What do these people have in common, again?