‘What are you?” a stupefied child asks the apparition standing overhead in A Wrinkle in Time. And Oprah Winfrey answers back, “I am a part of the universe!” Oprah’s fame has cost her the transparency to be a believable actress (which she so movingly was in Jonathan Demme’s Beloved), yet she achieves godhead in A Wrinkle in Time, a Disney film devoted to pagan self- worship. It is the second phase of Disney’s black-enslavement program this year (following Black Panther), and black female Ava DuVernay joins Oprah as director of this big-screen secular parable.
Although A Wrinkle in Time comes from a children’s novel by Madeleine L’Engle, the movie itself talks down to adult audiences as children. Schoolgirl Meg Murry (Storm Reid) misses her scientist father (Chris Pine), gone for four years after vanishing into another dimension. (“He wanted to touch the stars.”) Raised to believe in quantum physics, Meg has no social skills and is bullied by classmates until her loneliness is resolved by Oprah’s sudden appearance as Mrs. Which. A dimension-travelling regal entity, Mrs. Which is the leader of a female Trinity that includes ditsy clotheshorse Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), who spins metaphysical fabric about, and quotation junkie Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), who annotates civilization’s deep thoughts. They whisk Meg upon a journey to find her dad, via the folded geometric toy that adolescents once used to send love notes — a tesseract that becomes the film’s three-dimensional fantasyland.
This updated Oz is primarily a setting for Oprah’s New Age religiosity, now folded into #Resistance feminism. Its Its homilies amount to a manifesto, the same airy-fairy, social-worker generalities about insecurity — and resentment — that built Oprah’s media divinity.
This updated Oz, where Meg learns self-esteem, resembles other oases of children’s literature, but it’s primarily a setting for Oprah’s New Age religiosity, now folded into #Resistance feminism. Not simply a family film meant to appeal to children, A Wrinkle in Time has as its real purpose world domination. Its homilies amount to a manifesto, the same airy-fairy, social-worker generalities about insecurity — and resentment — that built Oprah’s media divinity.
The “teachable lessons” that became a pop-culture staple on Oprah’s TV talk show are repeated here as the deity’s own tablet of moral commandments: “Love without love is like a tree without blossoms or fruit.” “A wound is where the light comes in.” “A seer is a motivator of insight.” Liking this movie depends on one’s tolerance for drivel (or one’s reverence for Oprah), because DuVernay cannot visualize the ineffable or the commonplace. The awkward performances by Witherspoon and Kaling suffer from DuVernay’s inability to integrate different acting styles. These actresses come off as less amusing than that trio of witches in the Bette Midler–Sarah Jessica Parker–Kathy Najimy Halloween movie Hocus Pocus.
It’s possible that DuVernay’s inelegant FX trickery, including Meg’s poor imitation of The NeverEnding Story (flying on a giant asparagus-cum–magic carpet), could become a camp touchstone among smart alecks who are too vain to admit sentimental responses and so laugh at the visual absurdity. No image here looks original. Even Oprah herself, in multicolored face make-up, evokes ungainly associations: As wide as an Egyptian mummy’s sarcophagus and towering like Rex Ingram as The Thief of Bagdad’s genie, she barely moves, just holds forth; her white sage’s hair is cut in pointy Lisa Simpson angles. Oprah’s mutations are meant to suggest godlike metamorphoses, but whereas Octavia Spencer in The Shack actually played God through convincing matronly kindness and firmness, Oprah merely relies on ego. Her Great Lady intonations recall RuPaul being officious.
If this video-game-style hagiography doesn’t expose Oprah’s calculating arrogance, nothing will. The story is rooted in unsubtle feminism that makes Meg more resourceful than boys she knows. There’s a real element of misandry here, with Pine’s affectless dad, Michael Peña playing a demonic male, and Zach Galifianakis as the effeminate Happy Medium wearing a man bun. (Colorism is also apparent in light-skinned, biracial Meg and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as her mother.) The Disney corporation’s ongoing political correctness has warped into something unreliable — a feminist Hillary Clinton resistance that has become part of the way liberal Hollywood corrodes escapist dazzlement. It intends to influence minds.
“Be a warrior. Can you?” Oprah asks Meg. Mrs. Which’s self-improvement lessons are dissociated from old-fashioned, Judeo-Christian humanism. This is just bastardized Buddhism (venerating the “unseen energy that moves through us all”) — the trendy fallback of ruthless, secular show folk who use the concept of “universe” to replace God. A Wrinkle in Time also lists a hierarchy of saints when Oprah offers Einstein, Austen, Schindler, Gandhi, and Mandela as Meg’s role models. The Hollywood Left roots its secularism in political and cultural history.
Given DuVernay’s rudimentary filmcraft, FX teams take over the fantasy sequences (Meg’s fearful flashbacks seem depersonalized). Yet, through media hype, DuVernay has achieved undeserved esteem, parallel to Oprah’s. Cinema visionaries Fritz Lang, Leni Riefenstahl, Jean Cocteau, Jacques Tati, Karel Zeman, John Boorman, Wes Anderson, and Zack Snyder created stirring images, but DuVernay’s image-making is perfunctory. The relationship between close-ups and long shots is tokenistic; her lighting bland. As an ambitious 21st-century go-getter, she directs from a position of black, feminist control, not artistic insight or feeling.
DuVernay makes A Wrinkle in Time a mawkish, inspirational fable about empowerment. It lacks the poignancy one hears in Dolly Parton’s shrewd, ebullient new “children’s” album I Believe in You. Instead, little Meg is a social-justice warrior in a parable about the personal acquisition of influence: That’s what Oprah symbolizes. Mainstream media reviewers have been cautious about admitting how lackluster this movie is. Its true purpose is not to unleash the public’s inner child, but that inner sap who puts faith in mountebanks.