Meg (Storm Reid) is our average girl in need of an adventure. With her father (Chris Pine) having mysteriously disappeared when she was a child, she is picked on at school for being shy and wearing glasses. Meg’s brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), has more intelligence and embraces his status with an unusual glee. He’s so smart he skips right past the introductions of the fantasy elements and acts like the appearances of the spritely Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), the quote-spewing Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), and the giant Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey) is no big deal. They gotta keep that fantastical plot of bending spacetime to save dad at the edge of the universe under two hours.
There’s a surrealist tone that must be accepted to fully enjoy the fantasy of the film. Things just seem to happen almost at random without much explanation and the film just wants us to go with the flow. This includes the powers of the astral travelers that seem to be of random abilities that are never fully grounded. Mrs. Which will first appear as a giant for little reason than to loom around landscapes and have Charles Wallace caress her cheek when he flies across the sky. Their most consistent power seems to be the ability to change their colorful outfits with each jump through space and time. One place their powers cannot work is in the void of the Darkness, realm of all the evil in the universe that is helmed by the faceless villain known as The It. His full appearance of tendrils and light is about as cliche as his name implies. The Darkness appears to be another dimension capable of perspective-distorting rooms and creepy artificial neighborhoods, but it’s a bit underwhelming when the doorstep to this dimension is that of a wheatfield, baring a striking resemblance to the same location in Tomorrowland.
And just like Tomorrowland, Ava DuVernay’s film clubs the viewer over the head with its message to preteens with the force of a cinderblock to the skull. Through the first half of the film, Meg is constantly assured by her traveling companions that she is capable of so much more. She’s not just the shy nerdy girl; she can be a strong and confident warrior. This is not a bad message, but a better film could fit this theme without using a crowbar. The script goes so overboard with trying to empower girls that Meg’s apparent refusal of evil puts her on the same level as Oskar Schindler and Nelson Mandella. I guess all you have to do to be on their levels is resist temptation and love your brother.
I have little doubt that chunks of this story were left on the cutting room floor, as evident from the messy editing and lack of grounding in this fantasy. The character motivations are so brief and brisk to quickly cut to the next scene of CGI wonder. Indeed, the fantasy elements are so dazzling that movie has to stop itself so that the characters can frolic in a beautiful meadow. It doesn’t matter if there’s an impending and emotional quest about finding someone’s lost dad; the movie spent over $100 million on these computer-generated visuals and you will enjoy them! Thank goodness they’re worth a look, as the heady push of the themes boiled the picture down to the point where the special effects were more entertaining than the forced character interactions, delivered with some of clunkiest of acting and direction.
But what of the preteen audience? Will they get anything out of this? As I left the theater, I heard much beaming around the children that thought the movie was fun and awesome. On its base intentions, it certainly gets the job done of inspiring kids and I doubt a message so blunt will escape their understanding. It’s a solid choice for a kid’s first fantasy film, but I’ve been on this ride before and experienced it with allegories far more subtle and direction not so bumpy.