DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. With her new film "A Wrinkle in Time," Ava DuVernay has become the first woman of color to direct a motion picture with a budget of more than $100 million. She began her career making low-budget indies, including "Middle Of Nowhere," and has since become known for such films as "Selma" and "13th."
Film critic Justin Chang has this review of "A Wrinkle in Time."
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: Before it became a beloved touchstone of children's literature, Madeline L'Engle's 1962 novel "A Wrinkle in Time" was rejected by no fewer than 26 publishers. What young reader, the conventional thinking went, could possibly warm to this complex cerebral story with its mix of fantasy and science fiction, interplanetary travel and quantum physics, secular philosophy and Christian parable?
There was also the fear that readers wouldn't warm to a science fiction story with a female protagonist, in this case, Meg Murry, a bookish 14-year-old girl with a weakness for self-doubt and an aptitude for advanced mathematics. Time itself has long since proven the skeptics wrong.
"A Wrinkle in Time" has now inspired a much-anticipated Disney event movie from the director Ava DuVernay, turning her attention from independent productions like "Middle Of Nowhere," "Selma" and "13th" to a splashier, more family-friendly canvas. She's made a big, bright, unwieldy movie full of trippy colors, kaleidoscopic visuals and eager empowerment platitudes, a movie that wears its heart on its tie-dyed sleeve.
She has also reimagined Meg as a young girl of color, played by the gifted Storm Reid, and surrounded her with a multi-ethnic ensemble. It's a choice entirely consistent with DuVernay's longtime advocacy for greater inclusiveness in the movie industry. And it dovetails intuitively with the rejection of conformity that lies at the heart of L'Engle's story. That story is much the same as it was in the book.
Meg and her intellectually gifted younger brother, Charles Wallace, played by Deric McCabe, are both misfits at school, where everyone gossips about their scientist father, played by Chris Pine, who vanished on a mission years ago, leaving them alone with their mother, also a scientist, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw. But one dark and stormy night, the Murrys are visited by an eccentric celestial guardian named Mrs. Whatsit, played by a spirited Reese Witherspoon.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A WRINKLE IN TIME")
REESE WITHERSPOON: (As Mrs. Whatsit) Call me Mrs. Whatsit.
STORM REID: (As Meg) Mrs. Who?
WITHERSPOON: (As Mrs. Whatsit) No, Mrs. Whatsit. Mrs. Who is - she's, like, a billion years older and way more knowledgeable.
GUGU MBATHA-RAW: (As Dr. Kate Murry) What can I do for you, Mrs. Whatsit?
DERIC MCCABE: (As Charles Wallace) I caught her stealing sheets. Guys, she's harmless.
REID: (As Meg) You're six. Come on. What do you know about harmless?
MCCABE: (As Charles Wallace) Have I ever been wrong?
REID: (As Meg) Well, one of these days you might be, Charles Wallace.
WITHERSPOON: (As Mrs. Whatsit) Oh, I highly doubt that. He's one of the greatest minds in recent history. He's prodigious. But, of course, we can't take any credit for our talents. It's how we use them that counts.
CHANG: Mrs. Whatsit is soon joined by Mrs. Who, played by Mindy Kaling, whose every line of dialogue draws on famous quotations from writers including Shakespeare, Kahlil Gibran and the hip-hop duo Outkast. And then there is Mrs. Which, the oldest, wisest and most physically imposing of the three guardians, played with a deific glow by Oprah Winfrey.
This benevolent trinity sends Meg and Charles Wallace on a planet-hopping adventure to rescue their father. They do this by harnessing the power of the tesseract, a mysterious force that can transport someone swiftly from one end of the galaxy to another. As the characters plunge through a series of spacetime wormholes, we share in their sense of disorientation, sometimes pleasurably, sometimes frustratingly.
The worlds they visit are certainly eye-popping, from a lush, green landscape that brings "Avatar's" Pandora to mind, to a mountainside cavern where an oracle, played by Zach Galifianakis, has some crucial counsel to impart. The big good-versus-evil showdown takes place on Camazotz, a chilling Orwellian planet whose inhabitants' every thought is controlled by a computer-like brain called It.
But where L'Engle effortlessly got inside her characters' heads, DuVernay's approach remains a resolutely exterior one. Visually, the movie keeps throwing stuff at us, mind-bending effects and lightning-quick shifts in scenery - not to mention multiple costume changes for Witherspoon, Kaling and Winfrey. But you can understand why L'Engle's increasingly abstract story has so often been described as unfilmable.
I'm glad DuVernay and her screenwriters, Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell, didn't back down from that challenge. But I wish "A Wrinkle In Time" were more focused, more rigorous, that its flow of fantastical imagery cohered into a revelatory new understanding of L'Engle's themes and insights rather than an earnest, clunky reiteration of them. But the sheer go-for-broke exuberance of DuVernay's approach works its own kind of magic.
For all its gaudiness, the movie is worlds away from a cynical Disney live-action adaptation like "Alice In Wonderland." "A Wrinkle In Time" is a nakedly emotional film that builds to a climactic celebration of the power of love. And it's here that DuVernay, at last, claws her way onto L'Engle's wavelength. Her movie believes fervently that a young girl's imagination can change and even save the world.
I walked in believing as much myself. But walking out, I believed it a little bit more.
BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is a film critic for the LA Times. On Monday's show - life, loss and hope in war-torn Syria. We talk with journalist Rania Abu Zaid, who has returned again and again to Syria despite being banned from entering the country by the Syrian government. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.