I’ve never read Madeleine L’Engle’s fantasy classic novel. And I only knew very vaguely what it was about, until I googled its plot before watching the movie. So, I’m not at all of the camp that is up in arms with this new film adaptation because it’s too “different” from the book.
I went in with no prejudice at all in that respect. I think my only strikes against it before viewing were knowing it had a fairly low Rotten Tomatoes score, and well, Oprah. But I figured I was probably in for an hour and fifty minutes of visually appealing special effects, if nothing else.
Well, after having seen it, I wouldn’t go so far as to say nothing else, but maybe disappointingly little else.
An Underwhelming Start
The film’s first twenty minutes or so do a rather half-hearted job of making us care about the characters or their world.
We meet Meg, an awkward, underperforming, bullied young high school girl; and we learn that her father mysteriously disappeared. She has a younger brother named Charles Wallace who seems to be some kind of prodigy. Their mother is… fine, but if I’m being honest, kind of a bland genius scientist/caring mother character.
It’s not long before a fantastical character named Mrs. Whatsit (played by Reese Witherspoon in some crazy makeup and costumes) pops in on them, saying some cryptic stuff that seems to relate to their father’s disappearance.
And then comes along Calvin. Oh, poorly acted and underwritten Calvin. He’s a classmate of Meg’s, seems to like her even though he’s way more popular than her, and has pretty much no chemistry with the actress who plays her in even a platonic way, despite the suggestions of a young love story blooming between the two characters.
So, after a kind of mish-mash beginning in which we’re told an awful lot about the status quo in these characters’ lives but shown very little (oops, guess Disney forgot the first rule of storytelling – show, don’t tell) Meg sets off with Calvin and Charles Wallace to find her father, by means of some kind of mind-utilizing time travel.
Mrs. Whatsit is there to guide them, along with her two equally out-there celestial friends Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which, played by Mindy Kaling and Oprah respectively. These characters serve the purpose of guiding, helping, and of course spouting lots of on-the-nose platitudes in case viewers were uncertain on the movie’s themes.
The visuals for sure go in this column. I mean, the film looks great. If you want to watch cool things like kids flying, Reese Witherspoon turn into a talking tree/flying carpet, flowers dancing in unison, then this is the movie for you. And the big evil villain, the IT, which is shown mostly as a black spider-like invading web, well it looks pretty cool too (even if slightly reminiscent of the “Stranger Things” monster…).
Also the young actress in the role of Meg did a fine job. She’s pretty adorable, and I felt she pulled off some dialogue that was pretty badly written, making it look not so terrible.
It’s rated PG, and I think that’s pretty fair. The action can be kind of intense and scary at times, especially near the end when Meg is confronting the monster villain. That’s probably the biggest concern for littler viewers.
As far as themes, I know a lot of people are concerned that most of the Christian elements from the book have been removed. Not having read the book, I can’t speak to that as much as I can say that it seemed pretty broad and fairly non-divisive, spiritually speaking. It had a little bit of the pantheistic, “The Universe” type of jargon thrown around, but personally I didn’t find it that concerning. It did sort of hint at themes of purpose and Providence, but there was no mention of God and I’ll admit that the lack did make it feel a bit empty.
I will say that it felt as though themes of good verses an overarching evil encroaching on the world weren’t as strong as they wanted to be (and probably are in the book). Good vs. Evil is a real element of the film’s story, but it is often over shadowed by an overly obvious, completely unnuanced discussion of things like self-confidence and finding your inner strength. Great themes to talk about, sure, but perhaps a little overly-hammered in.
As far as other moral issues, there is one scene where Reese Witherspoon’s character is changing and it’s suggested (super briefly) that teenaged boy Calvin sees her naked. Awkward… and, why??
And, one other thing, if you’re thinking of seeing this in theaters. I would never think to mention trailers that came before a movie when reviewing it, except here. I was shocked and dismayed when I had to distract my three-year-old from the trailer for the upcoming Fox movie Love, Simon, which happens to be about a teenager with a secret: he’s gay. Not all theaters show the same trailers before a given movie, but if you’re worried about your kids being exposed to that, you might want to arrive late and miss the previews.
My Conclusion: Meh…
I could take or leave this movie. If I’d been in love with the novel, as it seems lots of people are, I would probably have wanted to see it out of curiosity. On the whole, the film seemed fairly harmless, but except for the spectacular visuals, the quality was kind of low.
I feel like Disney should have been able to do quite a bit better with an award-winning novel.
For more info, check out the Catholic News Service Review.