Wrapping it Up in the Third Tesseract
Gosh, I think it's been a half-century since I read Madeleine L'Engle's "A Wrinkle in Time," which won the Newberry Prize (and that was the reason I read it). The particulars of the book have long passed on, but I remember how well she captured childhood angst and alienation—for an adult, she knew a lot about the trials of being a kid—and the introduction to the mind-blowing concept of a tesseract (which she described simply as a fourth dimensional space—if a square is two dimensions, a cube is its progression in three, then a tesseract is the fourth configuration). When I read it, it made absolute sense that, given a fourth dimension, a tesseract would be the way to cross space to other places, other dimensions. It was a matter of not-simple geometry and will. L'Engle made you believe...because if she knew what made you tick, she probably had a good handle on the Universe, as well.
Well, it's been 65 years since the book was published (after being rejected by all the major publishers), has never NOT been in print (owing to its popularity) and, in that time, we've seen space-time, warp-speed (Star Trek), "folding space" (Dune), "hyper-space" (Star Wars) and the ever-handy "wormhole" feature as short-cuts in space.
Disney's second attempt at making an adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time (after a 2003 Canadian adaptation that, when L'Engle was asked if it lived up to her expectations, famously said "I expected it to be a disaster and it didn't disappoint me.") has less of an "Afterschool Special" vibe and certainly creates a bigger canvas (when representing the Universe, after all). The cast of kids is great—with an especially high fist-pump for Deric McCabe of making the toughest character work as both Purpose and Antagonist, rather than "that annoying kid" who just complicates things—and lead Storm Reid as the hero on the hero's journey.
Meg Murry (Reid) is miserable. School is boring and unbearable. She's the oldest kid who has to "grow up a little early" because Dad's gone in the family dynamic. That "Dad" (Chris Pine) is a theoretical physicist who has been absent for four years—and nobody has any explanation why—is a big heart-shaped keyhole in Meg's psyche. All of her issues seem to stem from that empty space—her relation to her Mother (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), her reception at school (where his disappearance is a source of "Mean Girl" torture) and, basically, everything.
But, all that changes with the appearance of Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), a being whom her little brother Charles Wallace (McCabe) has befriended and she mentions a way of traversing time and dimensions called utilizing a tesseract, which Whatsit hints is behind what the elder Murry was studying and might well have created the situation of his disappearance. She is an astro-traveller, who, with Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey) help, Meg, Charles Wallace, and a tag-along sympathizer, Calvin (Levi Miller) on a quest to go and rescue Dad, and make the Universe and, thus, life better.
That's such a galaxy crunching scenario that it squeezes the story to white-dwarf proportions, but that is essentially that. It's Wizard of Oz, with cosmology replacing dream-states brought on by trauma, and Ava DuVernay's film of it basically takes the Oz scenario and expands on the "feel-good" aspects without dealing too much with the mechanics of how we got here in the first place. One gets the impression that everything is done by "wishing it were so" which is not exactly what L'Engle was going for (see, kids, don't get too carried away with your work wasn't exactly a theme of hers, but it seems essential to The Disney Version). The kids use Dad's work to essentially save him AND the work, validating it and him...and themselves in the process.
And that's what "gets" me about this Wrinkle in Time, as much as it struggles to "gee-whiz" me with color and imagination, pushing my buttons, but not engaging my mind, it fairly buries the world-expanding concepts it is supposed to celebrate. The movie makes the experience an internal one, not a possibilities-expanding one, and that's antithetical to the source-work. It's sure a spectacle, but it's one of those movies where (probably due to some studio dumbing-down, maybe?) things happen because you want them to happen with no limitations and no ground-rules, but is made glossy enough that it thinks it smears over the improbability and objections and resulting emptiness such processes invoke when there's nothing solid behind it.
|Meg explains a tesseract—but it's not in the movie|
One wants a Wrinkle in Time to invoke a sense of wonder, rather wondering what went wrong.