A Wrinkle in Time arrives on gossamer wings with cult of Oprah uplift, far less magical than believing itself to be.
The rabbit was pulled early from Disney's hat when Ava DuVernay was hired to direct, the first African-American woman given a $100-plus million project. Knocking down that industry barrier is important. A more thrilling payoff is bound to come from another movie.
DuVernay brings overdue diversity to the traditionally Anglo male power structure of fairy tale fantasy, using Madeleine L'Engle's classic novel as an outline. Any story propelled by a bright girl and powerful women, or directed by one, is welcome.
But when all bromides are said and done, every not-so-special effect complete, A Wrinkle in Time simply proves dullness when faced with imagination isn't the exclusive domain of white men.
DuVernay's considerable talent rises with the hard realities of Selma and her documentary 13th, not inspiring fantasy. That talent makes A Wrinkle in Time interesting at first, gathering its fantasy momentum through intimacy. DuVernay introduces her hero Meg Murry, well played by Storm Reid, in frequent closeups allowing the actor's tiniest expressions and glances to define the character.
Meg is a bright kid, a chip off her scientist parents' block, but Reid lends poignancy to her nerdiness. Mean girls at school torment Meg because her father (Chris Pine) took his experiment in time travel too far, missing for four years now. He's trapped by the It, whatever It is, which is obviously an evil inkblot.
Meg will follow to rescue her father, aided by her brat-savant kid brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) and cute classmate Calvin (Levi Miller), whose lack of necessity could be DuVernay's clapback to fantasy flick girlfriends before.
Their astral guide through a tesseract is Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), an impatient sort unimpressed with Meg's chosen-one status. She introduces the kids to Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) who speaks in others' quotations from Kahlil Gibran to Shakespeare. They introduce the kids to the main attraction, the product in placement throughout A Wrinkle in Time:
Oprah Winfrey as God or something like her named Mrs. Which, glammed-up, 12-feet-tall and levitating, sounding like the first draft of her inspiring Golden Globes speech. Oprah-Wan Kenobi. Mrs. Which doesn't always fly but changes height, once as tall as a cellphone tower. She pops up normal size next to Meg, who's shocked to be eye-to-eye. Why not? It's Oprah.
Sanctimony isn't a good look for any movie. DuVernay might camouflage it with dazzling visuals, but A Wrinkle in Time is curiously short of those.
A meadow of butterfly orchids is a treat, but why can't we hear them "speaking colors" like Mrs. Whatsit can? Later she morphs into a flying leaf for a lettuce wrap rescue that underwhelms. And don't get me started on the tesseract passage home through what appears to be a car wash with angelic chorus.
DuVernay finds herself in the unenviable position of being both the right and wrong person for an important job. A Wrinkle in Time is gratifying for what it is, a step forward for creative women of color, and so disappointing for what it turns out to be.
Contact Steve Persall at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.