I have to admit that I'm probably the only person in the Western hemisphere who hasn't read Madeleine L'Engle's 1962, Newbery Medal-winning children's fantasy "A Wrinkle in Time." Therefore, I am unable to compare it to the 2003 television miniseries (released in the U.S. by Disney in 2004), which may be all for the better, as it frees me to comment on the film as a film rather than as an adaptation of something that so many people cherish. However, I feel as though I've been through the novel many times over, having read countless book reports on it from freshman high school students over the past thirty years. Maybe that counts for something; I don't know.
In any case, what we have in the movie is an abridged, 128-minute edition of the two-part TV version that originally ran close to four hours. Most of the movie works OK for kids, and 128 minutes at one shot seems about right for its subject matter. But the fact is, as a made-for-TV children's affair, "A Wrinkle in Time" moves along at a typically made-for-TV tempo; viewers are not going to mistake it for another "Harry Potter."
"A Wrinkle in Time" was the first book in Ms. L'Engle's "Time Quintet," which also includes "A Wind in the Door," "A Swiftly Tilting Planet," "Many Waters," and "An Acceptable Time." Once you've got a good thing going, you keep it going. As the title implies, "A Wrinkle in Time" and its continuations are about time travel through other dimensions. But more important, they are about the challenges of good and evil, about growing up, about fitting in, about learning who you are and how to believe in yourself. Ultimately, they are about the power of love.
Ms. L'Engle has said she hated science when she was in high school, but later in life she developed an interest in particle physics. This led her to the book's central idea, that vast distances of the universe might be crossed by a folding of space and time, a wormhole as we would call it today. It's the same idea later used by Carl Sagan in his own novel, "Contact."
But more than the exploration of science or science fiction, L'Engle is concerned with the exploration of self. The main character in "A Wrinkle in Time" is a teenage girl named Meg Murry, who begins the story with a very low self esteem. She's actually a bright, pretty, and personable young woman, who thinks of herself as stupid, ugly, and friendless. Naturally, by the time the story ends, she has come a long way not only in space and time but in positive self discovery. Thus, the book and the movie are uplifting as well as, I would imagine, reasonably exciting for most children.
"A Wrinkle in Time" is at once an adventure fantasy, a coming-of-age story, and, to a lesser degree, a romance. Meg is from a family of bright people. Her father, Jack (Chris Potter), is a physicist; her mother, Dana (Sarah-Jane Redmond), is a molecular biologist; and her little brother, Charles Wallace (David Dorfman), is a genius and a psychic (the kid is not only smart, he can read minds). It's only her two youngest brothers who seem at all normal. But Meg's world falls apart when her father mysteriously disappears.
The father was working on a top-secret government project when he vanished without a trace. The experiment he was conducting, called the Tesseract Project, involved the bending of space, allowing people to jump from place to place in the universe in the blink of an eye; a gateway to the stars; a "wrinkle in time." Turns out, higher intelligences in the universe have known about and have been using the Tesseract for millennia, and when the father stumbles upon its secret and is transported to another world, these higher beings, along with the children, must come to his aid.
The father has fallen into the darkness of the evil planet Camazotz, a dismal Orwellian place of fascist regimentation, fear, and hate. It's no fun at all. To retrieve him, and to restore peace and order to the universe, three otherworldly beings--Mrs. Whatsit (Alfre Woodard), Mrs. Who (Alison Elliott), and Mrs. Which (Kate Nelligan)--come to Earth and assist Meg, her brother Charles Wallace, and a neighbor teen, Calvin O'Keefe (Gregory Smith), in rescuing him. In a subplot that doesn't go very far, we learn that Calvin has a crush on Meg, a feeling that is eventually returned.
The adventures the three young people have in outer space is about what you would expect from a made-for-television movie. With a limited budget, much of the scenery and many of the special effects look a little less than convincing. But I'm sure that children, for whom the movie was intended, will never notice the seams in the fabric. They won't notice that a lot of the outdoor sets are built on a soundstage with Styrofoam rocks or that things like the CGI winged horse with the human head looks much like the computer animation it is. Children might even be amused by the silliness of the Happy Medium (Sean Cullen) or scared by the polished wickedness of the head baddie, the Man With Red Eyes (Kyle Secor).
Additionally, children won't notice too much the amount of hand-holding and winsome smiling going on, nor will they probably be distracted by the background music that struggles to be grand and eloquent and heroic but generally comes off bland and banal. The movie is a "Wizard of Oz" type of adventure, but without the essential magic or the sense of wonder that adults as well as children find in the older classic.
"A Wrinkle in Time" comes off in its movie form like a typical Disney product. It is lightweight, saccharine, rather slow going most of the way, and somewhat simplistic in its motifs. Like many other TV movies, its acting is not always persuasive, its pacing is sometimes clunky, and its script is often uninspiring. As I've said, I haven't read the book, but I can't imagine, given its popularity, that it would have been read by as many people as it has if it were as mundane as this movie. Still, as I've also said, this is a children's movie, and while it may not appeal to every older teen or adult, youngsters may find it more than acceptable.
In all respects the picture looks like a good, standard-definition TV broadcast. The 1.33:1 fullscreen ratio goes a long way toward reinforcing this impression, along with a small degree of grain and a murkiness in darker scenes, some overall blur, a touch of color bleed-through, and a few instances of wavy, jittery lines. In bright daylight shots, the picture looks fine, however, and I doubt that the kids for whom the movie was intended will mind some minor imperfections.
The sound is rendered via Dolby Digital 5.1 reproduction, and it is probably the best technical aspect of the movie. There are some nice aural effects all the way through the film, with deep, solid bass; strong dynamic impact; and more than a few occasions of lively rear-channel action, starting early on with rolls of thunder in the surrounds.
There are only a couple of extras on the disc, but, then, this is not exactly "Gone With the Wind" we're talking about, either. The most important bonus is a ten-minute interview with the author, Madeleine L'Engle. I found listening to her comments more interesting than watching the movie. Also of interest are five deleted scenes, most of them apparently belonging to a lengthy introductory sequence that was shelved, dealing with the father and his Tesseract experiments. Then, there's an eleven-minute, behind-the-scenes featurette, which serves mainly as a promotional item for the film as the cast and crew praise everything about the production. Finally, there are some Sneak Peeks at other Buena Vista releases; a whopping twelve scene selections; English as the only spoken language; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
The most obvious literary comparison to Madeleine L'Engle's "Time Quintet" is Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy: "The Golden Compass," "The Subtle Knife," and "The Amber Spyglass." I would hope that anyone who has read "A Wrinkle in Time" in his or her youth might also consider tackling Pullman's smartly written take on dimensional travel; and because of the strong appeal of the Pullman books for adults as well as for older children, I look forward to their coming to the big screen sometime soon.
In the meantime, the movie "A Wrinkle in Time" is aimed mostly at children. As such, grown-ups may find it hard slogging through the clichéd and often cloying sweetness and light. Kids, however, may be delighted by its colorful characters, straightforward adventure, and unaffected themes.