I wouldn’t presume to guess how a 12-year-old will respond to this film, especially if that girl or boy hasn’t read Madeleine L’Engle’s beloved book. I can only express my feelings, which are decidedly mixed. On the one hand, the emotional journey of young Meg Murry (well played by Storm Reid) is relatable and compelling. Meg is a bright girl who has turned sullen, even hostile, since the disappearance of her scientist father (Chris Pine) four years ago. She is all but consumed by this blow but remains devoted to her younger brother, a precociously brilliant boy named Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe). It is he who welcomes the first of three ethereal visitors known as “The Mrs.” and seems to understand what they’re all about.
With the arrival of Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, and especially Oprah Winfrey as these guiding lights the film undergoes a major shift in tone. An adolescent might not know or care, but a I had to get past Witherspoon’s self-consciously cute performance, Kaling’s attempt to be beatific, and Winfrey’s overwhelming presence. I consider Oprah a fine actress, but her place in our culture (and consciousness) makes it hard to forget who she is as she portrays the wise, all-knowing Mrs. Which…all the more so because in her earliest scenes she is literally giant-sized.
The film is at its best when it focuses on the children: Meg, Charles Wallace, and their new friend Calvin (Levi Miller), who joins them on a quest to find their missing father. He was intent on figuring out the ways of the universe and seems to have broken through the fourth dimension. This leads the intrepid youngsters into the realm of Camazotz where evil dwells, an evil that is invading life on earth.
Ava DuVernay’s film, with a script credited to Jennifer Lee (one of the Oscar-winning writers of Frozen) and Jeff Stockwell (who adapted another enduring young-adult novel, Bridge to Terabithia), is awash in elaborate visual effects. Some of them are novel and awe-inspiring, but others struck me as too literal—which is my complaint about the movie overall. Believing in yourself is a valuable lesson, especially for young people, but it is delivered so heavy-handedly that it prevents viewers from discovering it for themselves. At every juncture of the story such messages are imparted to us in the most obvious way, as if they were spelled out in neon.
What’s more, the movie (like the book) is an intense experience. Some climactic scenes in the land of Camazotz could be the stuff of nightmares for vulnerable children. Although the Disney production is rated PG, I would advise parents to think carefully about their kids’ ability to deal with this material.
I suspect adults and children alike will have varying reactions to this long-awaited adaptation. Some will miss the theological underpinning of L’Engle’s prize-winning book. Others may decry the literal interpretation of a novel that offers each reader his or her own experience, fueled by their imagination. And some, no doubt, will fall under the spell of this elaborate production, which offers eye-popping visuals, appealing protagonists, and a narrative that is never dull. Yet somehow I can’t foresee this film having the same long-term impact that the book has enjoyed since it was published in 1963. Madeleine L’Engle’s writing has touched and inspired readers of all ages. This movie spoon-feeds some of her profound ideas to an audience weaned on Hollywood blockbusters. I come away feeling, as I often do, that people would be better served by returning to the source. Nothing can match the feeling one gets from reading a great book.