Filmgoer’s Flamethrower #12 – A Wrinkle in Time

Posted: March 15, 2018 in Uncategorized

© 2018 G.N. Jacobs

Orpheus and Eurydice without the music, I thought to myself watching A Wrinkle in Time. In the end the experience of the filmed adaptation of Madeline L’Engle’s classic children’s novel came off as one of almost and one of the few properties for which longer makes sense. Longer in the sense of a harder and harsher story rescuing Meg Murry’s father from the dark world of the It (Hades, Hell take your pick). And shorter in the sense of the three Mistresses, Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which (the local analogue of Gandalf the overpowered guide) getting off stage earlier in the First Act.

We begin with Meg (Storm Reid) interacting with her father, Dr. Alex Murry (Chris Pine), a brilliant astrophysicist explaining in simple terms his search for the frequencies lying underneath the universe that may enable long distance travel and possibly the opportunity to shake hands with Creation. And just days after adopting Meg’s new baby brother, Charles Wallace Murry (Deric McCabe), Daddy disappears leaving a hole in Meg’s heart.

Four years later, Meg endures the slings and arrows of the outrageous misfortune of Middle School where any of the slightest things can cause bullying. Not having a father who famously disappeared after proposing an apparently whacked out theory about using frequencies and dimensions to travel anywhere, explore the mysteries of the subatomic, the influence of the other Dr. Murry, Kate aka Mom (Gugu MBatha-Raw) and generally geek out understanding it’s a wonderful and beautiful universe. Or having a little brother wearing his heart for his big sister on his sleeve. Or that the chief tormentor, Veronica Kiley (Rowan Blanchard), gets mean when she’s on a low carb diet.

Because Charles Wallace is such a nice trusting person where Meg really isn’t because Daddy disappearing has left a hole in her heart, he drags home or causes a meeting with two of three strange women to figure greatly in the story to come. First up, Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) lands on their porch in a wind and rainstorm. She tells them that a tesseract is real and leaves when she sees Meg isn’t quite ready.

Then Charles Murry leads Meg and her friend and potential boyfriend, Calvin O’Keefe (Levi Miller) across the street to a classic Los Angeles shotgun bungalow house where they find an odd and sleepy Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) wrapped up in a quilt making full use of a rocker. This Mrs. speaks only in other people’s quotations including a few that dropped into our collective headspace after the publication of the book. When Meg, Calvin and Charles Wallace are ready, the final guide appears…Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey). And away we go…off to rescue Daddy from the clutches of the It, an ever-expanding force of anger, jealousy and rage infecting the whole galaxy, but starting with Earth.

Rescuing loved ones from the underworld or the Sith Lord headquarters on Death Star 2.0 is a time-honored allegedly always works form of mythic storytelling. We keep going back to it. And we keep using Gandalf the guide that has to leave in the middle of the story to make sure that Orpheus or Heracles (the other mythic Greek to tangle with Hades on home turf) do the heavy lifting themselves, rescuing people from the underworld. The problem is that sometimes the guide stays on stage too long as do all of the Mistresses in this case.

In the company of the three Mistresses (it is so hard to speak and write the plural of Mrs. without going back to the archaic meaning before the contraction), the children visit the visually stunning world of Uriel. The flowers fly. The colors assisted by lots of CGI might blow out your retinas and then the adventure party discovers the It during the latest tesser attempt. Meg doesn’t believe she can do very much because of how damaging Daddy’s absence has been. And then after a brief sojourn with The Happy Medium (Zach Galifianakis), as obvious a stand-in for The Oracle of Delphi as there ever was, the roadshow goes directly to Camazotz, the land of the It. The Mistresses bail, a little late for my tastes in story structure.

If you ask me (and you didn’t, I get it), the movie needs to drag out what happens to the three children in the underworld lair of the It. Orpheus seeking his love was an epic journey full of stops where the mythical musician has to play for his life to calm various beasts resident in Hades, including the three-headed dog Cerberus. If you add in pseudo-Christian theology, where Lucifer works out his anger at God and humans by lying and deceiving, you can see how the Orpheus myth has expanded into some awesome storytelling, including the near-classic cheeseball movie Road to Hell from the 1990s. But, it works only if the writer/filmmaker doesn’t jump the narrative to get Orpheus into the infernal presence too soon.

Pretty much Meg, Charles Wallace and Calvin see a scary, creepy suburban cul-de-sac where scary, creepy little children bounce playground red handballs in unison until they’re called inside by their equally scary, creepy Stepford Wives mothers for dinner. One of these moms offers to feed the hero party as well, but in a possible nod to the similar other great myth of the Greek Underworld, Persephone, Meg and party don’t want to eat anything in Camazotz.

And then the kids go to the beach, where the previous fortitude about not eating the It’s food breaks down and only Meg passes the moral test. And so once Charles Wallace succumbs to the blandishments from the It’s front man, Red (Michael Peña), the mission becomes about saving Daddy held prisoner and rescuing the boy from his mental entrapment by the It that sees his potential, but only if the lad abandons the love in his family. Meg must tap into her faults and insecurities as the smart brainy and awkward girl at school throwing punches over slights to her family and, most importantly, her love for Charles Wallace to get everyone home.

Really? So once the Orpheus stand-in leaves the security of the Mistresses at The Happy Medium’s cave, there are only two major stops in the Underworld to delay, distract her from rebuilding the family in Love? This has basically been a lot of words to carefully explain that not enough happens to Meg Murry to make this movie anything more than an average visual feast hollowed out like a homeless fort made from cardboard.

On the plus side, the film looks great. Whether it was the location scouts, the cinematography, or the absolute artists sacrificing their eyes in front of monitors, a new standard for screen wonder has been set. And director Ava DuVernay got as much as anyone would ever do out of this structurally thin script especially in the small moments seeing Meg’s travails at school at the hands of Veronica. Storm Reid imbues Meg Murry with the Everyman quality of all of us as we wish we could forget Middle School.

Another area where this film went well is with the music, especially finding every available female singer with a song about strong women, whether a mother, sister or daughter to tug at the heartstrings. As sometimes happens very little of the non-singing soundtrack comes back to my memory a day after seeing the movie.

In sum, I walked out of the theater feeling that not enough happened in this movie to care beyond the flashes of interesting character work seen on screen. Until next time…

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