"A Wrinkle in Time" -- ★ ★ ★
With eyeball-blasting visuals, a cute, colorful cast, a soaring score, spectacular costumes and esteem-affirming messages of love, hope and turning your faults into strengths, Ava DuVernay's fantasmagorical "A Wrinkle in Time" engages and enlightens, although it lacks the speed and narrative polish to become a timeless kids classic.
The story has been filmed once before, as a 2003 Walt Disney TV movie.
This time, no expense has obviously been spared in the visual effects department to bring Madeleine L'Engle's 1962 young adult novel "A Wrinkle in Time" to the silver screen, adapted by "Frozen" writer Jennifer Lee.
Rated PG, DuVernay's vision combines "Alice in Wonderland" with darker elements of the "Nightmare on Elm Street" horror films (mostly those surrealistic sets) plus a malevolent, expansive forced called The IT.
Twelve-year-old Storm Reid, an actress with soft, intelligent eyes and a core of steely resolve, plays Meg Murry. She and her little brother Charles Wallace (newcomer-with-attitude Deric McCabe) and her mom, Kate (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), still live in the sad shadows of the disappearance of their respective father and husband, Alex Murry (Chris Pine).
Alex had been a NASA theoretical physicist who, along with his wife, discovered "tessering," the ability to surf through dimensions of space and time using the mind.
Meg's father disappeared four years earlier, leaving her feeling the world doesn't make sense. Her withdrawn nature becomes a target for a nasty clique of school bullies.
One bright moment occurs when a classmate, the cute star athlete Calvin (Australian actor Levi Miller), defies social blowback by befriending her.
Just in time before three magical cosmic beings -- Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) and Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) -- appear to Meg, Charles Wallace and Calvin. (The cosmic beings may look odd, but they've apparently found other cosmic beings to marry them.)
They say that Alex Murry is alive and being held prisoner on a faraway planet called Camazotz, and that Meg must save him, along with the entire universe.
And so the adventure begins, first on the planet Uriel, a lush, fertile place with extremely friendly flowers (and Mrs. Whatsit's transformation into a not-so-realistic green, flying Manta Ray creature). Then on to Orion, a planet of rocks and fog and grayness.
Chicago's Michael Pena brings friendly menace to his sinister IT surrogate, a literal puppet for his master, named Red (known in L'Engle's book as the Man With the Red Eyes).
In an unusual twist during this Era of the Woman, Zach Galifianakis' comical Happy Medium underwent a sex change from the book. Filmmakers determined the female-heavy cast could use a little more testosterone, even if it belonged to Galifianakis.
Oddly, the supporting character Calvin apparently exists only as a vague romantic prize for Meg in a reversal of Hollywood's standard movies with male leads. Calvin has no other purpose. Take him out of the movie and nothing changes.
"A Wrinkle in Time" doesn't move at the narrative velocity that best fits its subject matter. (I always refer to the fleet editing of "The Wizard of Oz" as the gold-standard for fantasies.)
But that's a mere wrinkle in this good time at the movies, a fantasy with flash, flair and friendly advice to help kids cope when the world doesn't seem to make sense.
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Starring: Storm Reid, Levi Miller, Deric McCabe, Oprah Winfrey, Chris Pine, Reese Witherspoon, Michael Pena, Mindy Kaling, Gugu Mbatha-Raw
Directed by: Ava DuVernay
Other: A Walt Disney Pictures release. Rated PG. 115 minutes