The books we read in childhood — the great ones, anyway — can seem so foundational to our growing senses of self that we reject any attempts to tamper with them. That’s natural and it’s also unfair, and it complicates my response to the new film version of “A Wrinkle in Time” directed by Ava DuVernay (“Selma”), just as it may complicate yours.
It isn’t the diversity of the movie’s announced casting that had me concerned; that’s welcome and, more to the point, it works, reflecting a more inclusive America than the one in which Madeleine L’Engle’s book was published in 1962. Rest assured, in young Storm Reid, “Wrinkle” has the best Meg Murry a L’Engle reader could hope for: ardent, insecure, a big wonderful brain warring with an adolescent’s outsized emotions.
No, every film adaptation of a beloved childhood book has to be a betrayal to some degree because it will never match the production long since staged in our heads. And “A Wrinkle in Time” is a hell of a production, with otherworldly beings, intergalactic leaps, and an allegorical wrestling match between good and evil. For years, people have called the book “unfilmable”; that only means they’d prefer it stay inside their imaginations. (The studio, Walt Disney Pictures, prefers otherwise, obviously.)
So how’s the movie already? Not terrible, not great, something of a disappointment after what feels like a geological epoch of hype. Parts of “A Wrinkle in Time” work while others don’t; luckily, the parts that do involve the core around which L’Engle’s book resonates: love of family, love of being alive, love of our common humanity and the experiences that bind us together. You never once doubt this movie’s commitment to the book’s intense emotional reality — its warmth.
The parts that don’t work so well? Not surprisingly, they have to do with the movie’s attempts to visualize the book’s imagined beings and abstract concepts, which rest on math and science and faith and which the filmmakers try to translate using the latest in digital effects. For all the strenuously pixelated onscreen wonder, it’s not quite the same language.
When the movie opens, the teenage Meg is grappling with the unexplained four-year disappearance of her physicist father, Dr. Charles Murry (Chris Pine), and with mean girls at school. Her mathematician mother (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, radiating careworn concern) is having trouble holding it together.
Meg’s younger brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), is a budding genius eerily in tune with the mysteries of the spheres; McCabe was 8 when the movie was filmed but he has the self-possession, the not-quite-naïve certainty, that a faithful reader wants in a Charles Wallace. It’s this character who brings in the story’s magical beings, L’Engle’s shape-shifting cosmic weird sisters Mrs. Which, Mrs. Whatsit, and Mrs. Who. Or, as you know them, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, and Mindy Kaling.
Right there is a built-in problem with DuVernay’s conception: It’s difficult to forget you’re watching the stars playing dress-up and concentrate instead on the characters they’re meant to embody. A lot of this has to do with the forced comedic banter given them by screenwriters Jennifer Lee (“Frozen”) and Jeff Stockwell (“Bridge to Terabithia”) in a script that leans, often awkwardly, on the message-y aspects of L’Engle’s tale. Nor are the stars done any favors by the garish costume design and make-up, in which Winfrey’s eyebrows appear to have been differently bedazzled for each scene.
Mostly, though, the stars’ celebrity overwhelms their roles. When Mrs. Which arrives in Meg’s backyard, she’s about 50 feet tall, and the sight of a Godzilla-sized Oprah so jibes with her position as Queen of Our Popular Culture that you briefly giggle yourself right out of the movie.
In an effort to locate the missing Dr. Murry, the trio spirit Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin (Levi Miller), a sweet-souled neighbor boy, across the stars by way of a Tesseract — a wrinkle in time-space that seems surprisingly easy to negotiate once you know the right frequency, Kenneth. The first planet visited is full of sentient flowers and undulating green meadows; its resemblance to Teletubbyland is unfortunate and presumably unintentional. Indeed, the production design throughout “A Wrinkle in Time” wobbles between awe-inspiring and overloaded kitsch.
Points for nailing that sequence in the evil alien suburbs, though, with its endless line of children bouncing red rubber balls in creepy synchronization; the scene served as a primal childhood nightmare for many young readers and carries a similar sickening punch in the film. And while the visit to the Happy Medium — here gender-switched into a fey Zach Galifianakis — feels like one more Special Guest Appearance, the appearance of the movie’s devil, the Man with Red Eyes (Michael Pena), is nearly as unsettling as in the book.
What holds “A Wrinkle in Time” together — why kids should love it even as we fallen grown-ups pick at the nits — is the strength of family feeling at its center. Pine is at his most gently charismatic here, and he conveys immense fatherly devotion as Dr. Murry (along with at least one fairly sizable foible). Reid’s Meg is both marvelous and real, a beautiful nerd girl finally coming into a knowledge of her own power.
DuVernay’s movie celebrates L’Engle’s much-loved teen heroine and envelops her in the cinematic equivalent of an emotional support system, and that’s what makes this new “Wrinkle” stand apart from other classic Young Adult book adaptations and even its own more calculated urges (like a fluid but overbearing soundtrack studded with songs by Sade, Sia, and other Top 40 sirens). Early in the film, we flash back to Meg’s father giving her a paper fortune teller — some of us called them “cootie catchers” — with a heart drawn on the inside; he tells her that even when she can’t see his love, it’s always there, enfolded.
So it is with this movie. L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time” isn’t gone. It’s just been enfolded.
A WRINKLE IN TIME
Directed by Ava DuVernay. Written by Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell, based on the novel by Madeleine L’Engle. Starring Storm Reid, Deric McCabe, Chris Pine, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Levi Miller, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs; Jordan’s Furniture IMAX in Natick and Reading. 109 minutes. PG (thematic elements and some peril).Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.