Mrs. Whatsit's partner in supernatural mischief is Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), whose every line of dialogue draws on a pan-cultural archive of famous quotations from writers as different as Shakespeare, Kahlil Gibran and Outkast. And then there is Mrs. Which, the oldest, wisest and most physically imposing of this benevolent trinity, played by Winfrey with all manner of elaborate headdresses and facial adornments. (Dazzling as these three women's many costume changes are, they can't quite do justice to the mysterious, mercurial identities that L'Engle gave them on the page.)
The missuses have the power to harness a "tesseract," which is not a device imported from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but rather a fifth-dimensional force that enables people to zip across galaxies in no time. And so, accompanied by their friendly schoolmate Calvin (Levi Miller), Meg and Charles Wallace go on an eye-popping, planet-hopping adventure, landing first on a lush, rolling landscape whose hallucinatory colors and giant flowers bring "Avatar's" Pandora to mind, and then in a mountainside cavern where an oracle known as the Happy Medium (Zach Galifianakis) provides some essential guidance.
In time the kids arrive on Camazotz, a chillingly Orwellian planet whose inhabitants are controlled by a single, computer-like brain called IT. Some of the director's most inspired set-pieces come to the fore here, notably an insidious mind-control sequence (featuring a fine, sinister Michael Pena) that unfolds on a crowded beach.
Although L'Engle used these passages to worm deeper into her characters' heads, the movie remains a resolutely exterior experience -- full of mind-bending effects and lightning-quick shifts in scenery, but unable to match its source material's rigorous coherence or its remarkable level of sensory and cognitive detail.
What DuVernay's film offers instead, and it's no small thing, is a gloriously unapologetic trippiness, a hallucinatory quality that is only amplified by the sheer velocity of the storytelling. At times you wish the movie would slow down and let us catch our breath, to allow us to feel immersed in these far-flung realms rather than tossed from one to the next.
But there's urgency in all this dynamism, and real feeling as well. In every swirling frame you can sense a filmmaker's desire to lose herself and her audience in the material, to find a cinematic syntax that will give fresh, vibrant expression to a well-loved story.
Sincerity alone doesn't make a film worth seeing, but the sincerity of "A Wrinkle in Time" is very much something to see. No less than the novel, this fearlessly emotional picture builds to a bracing, unapologetically sentimental celebration of the power of love. And it's here, in her focus on family bonds strong enough to span light years, that DuVernay finds her way fully onto L'Engle's wavelength. She has made a movie that believes fervently that a young girl's imagination can change, challenge and even save the world. I went in believing as much myself, but walking out, I believed it a little bit more.
'A WRINKLE IN TIME'
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Rating: PG, for thematic elements and some peril
Running time: 2 hours
Playing: In general release
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