Photo: Disney

In Matt Groening’s old Life In Hell comic strip, he refers to high school as “the second-deepest pit in hell.” The deepest pit, he clarifies, is junior high school. This feels true; the confusion and awkwardness of the transition from tween to teen is at least as potent as the transition from teen to adult. Yet there are so many movies about the angst of 17-year-olds, and so few movies about, say, 12-year-olds that don’t amount to cartoony chants of “down with homework.”

A Wrinkle In Time, Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s beloved fantasy novel, has plenty of spectacle: far-off planets, elaborately costumed and braided movie stars (and moguls), and some light universe-saving. But it also has the acknowledgement that its young heroine, Meg Murry (Storm Reid), doesn’t always like herself very much. It’s a startling admission that packs more punch than the extensive, impressive special effects.

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It also comes a little late in the movie. When Meg is first introduced, it’s easy to miss her self-loathing as she continues to mourn the disappearance of her scientist father (Chris Pine). Mr. Murry and his wife (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) were studying a method of traveling through the universe via tesseracting—finding the right frequency to “wrinkle” space and time and create a shortcut. Mr. Murry literally vanished into his studies shortly after the adoption of Meg’s little brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), who has since grown into a precocious 5-year-old, full of hope and encouragement for the more sullen Meg. It’s Charles Wallace who attracts the attention of Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), an orange-haired being who materializes with a mission for universe-saving good (“protect the light,” all that fantasy-movie nonsense) and an amusing skepticism about Meg’s capacity to step up and help.

Photo: Disney

But Charles Wallace insists, and also invites along Meg’s dullard schoolmate Calvin (Levi Miller). Mrs. Whatsit, along with Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), who speaks primarily in quotations, and the regal Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), whisk the kids away through a series of universe wrinkles. They intend to find Meg and Charles Wallace’s dad, yes, but they also have to fight off a dark force known only as It (not to be confused with It of Derry, Maine; if anything, it bears more resemblance to the Nothing from The NeverEnding Story). Though an uncertain Meg is told she needs to “be a warrior,” that distinction appears to be more of an honorific. A Wrinkle In Time has not been converted into a battle-heavy epic; it’s more the kind of fantasy story where children are encouraged to think their way out of sticky situations, and also talk to flowers.

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This should not be a problem, as DuVernay is usually adept at shooting conversations. Her films Middle Of Nowhere and Selma are largely made up of people talking, and she clearly puts a lot of thought into how to frame them. Some of those striking images—heads in profile at the extreme edges of the frame, expressive low-angle shots, evocative close-ups—pop up here, but sometimes the images feel overwhelmed by the amount of business the movie needs to conduct. DuVernay stages the scenes that introduce Mrs. Who and Mrs. Whatsit with uncharacteristic abruptness, as bursts of unwieldy dialogue force the odd angles to bump into each other. Many of these scenes don’t flow, especially when the movie has to transition from the concrete details of Meg’s life into the woo-woo abstractions of her sudden fantasy adventure.

Once A Wrinkle In Time launches into its trippy planet-scapes, ranging from secondhand Avatar flights to teetering orange cave rocks to an eerie suburban cul-de-sac, it delivers more consistent eye candy, though screenwriters Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell never completely crack L’Engle’s storytelling rhythms. The kids are shuttled around hither and thither for reasons that seem logical (or at least fantasy-logical) at first, but seem arbitrary just minutes later, by which point they’re usually being hustled off to meet a new elaborately costumed guest star like Zach Galifianakis or Michael Peña.

Photo: Disney

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Some of the best moments—and there are wonderful moments throughout this confident yet unsteady production—are smaller in scale. One climactic scene uses simple but eye-catching blocks of color not unlike Drake’s “Hotline Bling” video; another sequence explains the nefarious influence of It through little scenelets of the movie’s supporting characters feeling jealousy, shame, and disappointment. That’s where and how DuVernay makes the material sing: She has a big, splashy YA adaptation illustrate the effects of “evil” through a flood of empathy.

Why, then, does Meg still square off against a grayish, tentacled manifestation that could appear in the over-cranked climax of any number of comic-book movies? Why does Charles Wallace show off his precocity like a screenwriter-approved mini-adult when hearing him speak like a grown-up at a crucial juncture late in the movie would be scarier without the earlier affectation? And why is the movie so clumsy in handling its exposition, with everyone around Meg weirdly aware of a nonsensical “fourth anniversary” of a NASA scientist’s disappearance? How can such false notes survive in what appears to be a passion project for all involved?

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The simple answer is that making a big-budget fantasy with both technical chops and a human soul isn’t as easy as Disney has been making it look with movies like Black Panther and The Last Jedi. Here, they have a committed cast and a talented director in addition to the studio’s vast monetary resources. But only Reid and Pine feel like they’re playing fully imagined characters, and DuVernay wrestles with how to make the overstuffed material both contemporary and timeless. For a kids’ picture, A Wrinkle In Time is relatively nuanced and idiosyncratic, with enough honest moments to ground its flights of fancy. Adults may be less impressed by a movie that peers into a pit of adolescent hell before hastily reentering the mystical light.