A World of Fragments

This is a blog for the review and discussion of films; all kinds of film, old and new, good and bad. Participation is always encouraged - even if you disagree! Leave me a comment, drop me a line. Heck, you might even want to recommend a movie...

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

A Wrinkle in Time

Title: A Wrinkle in Time (2003)
Dir.: John Kent Harrison
Stars: Katie Stuart, David Dorfman, Alfre Woodard

Viewed: on DVD

This review contains NO SPOILERS

It's a funny contradiction, watching movies based on books you loved as a kid. On the one hand, I'm always fascinated - sometimes, morbidly so - to see how the story's been adapted, what's been changed, and how it's otherwise been adapted for the visual experience. On the other hand, I always know that even the best of adaptations is probably going to leave me feeling a little bit flat. A fine example of this is Disney's Alice in Wonderland, a film I certainly enjoy on its own merits, but don't consider a particularly nice adaptation of the book. And Alice is a simple book - at least, when compared to A Wrinkle in Time.

A Wrinkle in Time comes from that strange grey area of 1960s children's literature, when the genre was clearly shifting and evolving away from the more traditional books of the 1950s, but hadn't quite metamorphosed into the ultra-moralistic, realism-beats-all form of the 1970s. A lot of our modern children's classics are from this transitory period: Lewis' Narnia series ended in the '60s, as did the last attempt at prolonging the Oz series in an official capacity; Roald Dahl hit the jackpot with, amongst others, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach; Zilpha Keatley Snyder wrote about The Egypt Game and The Velvet Room; Lloyd Alexander took us to a non-existent past in The Chronicles of Prydain and Norton Juster proved that time is relative in The Phantom Tollbooth. Out of all of these, A Wrinkle in Time - the first of what would ultimately be four books, or more when you consider most of Madeline L'Engle's books link together through the family trees of the characters - is perhaps the only one that would have been absolutely impossible any earlier in team. The main characters are a dull, unlikeable girl, and her overly precocious brother. There's religious metaphor without any overt religious message. And - oh yes - the whole thing hinges on particle physics. Well, you knew it had to happen sometime.

Flash-forward forty-one years, and Disney has finally prepared a TV miniseries of the much-loved classic. Hit the forward button a couple more, and I'm sitting here, watching it on DVD with a rather significant amount of trepidation. The verdict? It's not too bad. Not fantastic, but not too bad.

The interesting thing is that they seem to have tried, as much as possible, to respect the book. The plot is not very different, and sometimes that's an outright flaw - there are sections toward the end that suffer from the "Dune effect" (as seen in the eponymous David Lynch film), where you simply won't understand everything that's happening unless you've read the book. On the other hand, though, Disney apparently cut it from a two-part miniseries to a two-hour movie, and only restored part of that material for the DVD release (which runs 128 minutes - a miniseries, surely, would've been around 180). It's possible, even likely, that some such explanations were lost in the editing room.

Aside from the limits of the length, however, the script is remarkably keen at keeping what needs to be kept and ditching the rest. Sadly, that's very much undone by a bombardment of truly poor CGI effects. The children land on an alien planet? The planet, the dust, even the buildings are CGI. One character magically transforms into a centaur? The centaur is completely, and obviously, cheap CGI. Someone needs to run down a series of linked corridors? CGI, CGI, CGI. I played more realistic video games in the late '90s. All of the money seems to have gone toward the actual "tesseract" effect, which while important, did not need to be so grandiose, especially at the expense of all else. I mean, for cryin' out loud, when there's an overhead shot of trees, the trees should look real.

And the special effects are my main beef with the TV movie, because in most other respects, it's at least acceptably successful. The three child/teen leads are all quite well cast, even David Dorfman as Charles Wallace, who is required to play the most precocious 6-year-old ever. Most of the adults do quite well, too, with the exception of Kyle Secor, who as the main villain plays it so eeeeeevil it hurts, and Alfre Woodard, who is simply channeling overcooked ham. It's hard to play alien eccentrics, after all, and her role as one of three mysterious celestial ladies is, essentially, Tom Baker's Doctor from before Doctor Who ever existed - and it's only at the very end that she finally realizes she doesn't need to emphasize every other word that comes out of her purple lips. Perhaps she took a hint from Sean Cullen as the Happy Medium, who utterly ruins his one scene. Fake laughter is not actually funny, nor is it endearing. Alison Elliott's rather dotty Mrs Who actually grew on me, though, as did Kate Nelligan's somewhat overly-sympathetic (even overly-corporeal!) Mrs Which. They're not quite what I read in the book at age seven, but they're not lightyears away, either.

You may get the impression from these paragraphs that I'm not sure whether I liked the film or not. That's essentially true. It's not as bad as I feared, but it's still kids'-TV-movie territory, and it can be a little hard to take at times. I think I fall just barely on the side of liking it, though. I checked it out for free at the library, after all, and I had a fair idea of what I was getting into. I'm just happy the core of the story, bad CGI or otherwise, is very much intact.

The DVD actually has a couple of nice features. The first is a series of five deleted scenes, almost all of which take the story much, much farther away from the source novel than anything in the finished film, by rather needlessly giving background to several characters and the Tesseract project. One is a particularly noxious "training" sequence where the three ladies try to get the children to understand their weaknesses, making room for some completely unnecessary references to Harry Potter and Star Trek. Together, these deleted scenes are almost twenty minutes long, and they left me wondering if I'd really like that original cut after all. More pleasant is a 10-minute interview with the original author, Madeline L'Engle, who very succinctly describes why she wrote the book and the message she was trying to get across. If you bother to watch the film, you should definitely check her out.

So, do I recommend it? Reservedly. I've seen much poorer adaptations in my time, and I'd sooner watch it again than a fair few shinier, more expensive ones - for instance, to use my earlier literary example, Henry Selick's James and the Giant Peach, which is shiny and slick and a travesty of the book. If you've read and enjoyed A Wrinkle in Time, and are ready for a few differences, a cheap rent or a library loan of this DVD wouldn't hurt. Afterward, you can always go back to the book.

Oh, and if you were wondering: the DVD cover is a marketing lie. There's no pegasus in the film. Nor is there a castle, nor anything like it...


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