Books on the Big Screen: "A Wrinkle in Time" & "Ready Player One" | Movie Review

Two big-screen extravaganzas by award-winning directors take on two popular novels with mostly with positive results, though one filmmaker had arguably a higher mountain to climb.

Storm Reid as Meg in A Wrinkle in Time (Disney)

Two big-screen extravaganzas by award-winning directors take on popular novels with mostly with positive results, though one filmmaker arguably had a higher mountain to climb. The much-talked-about, highly publicized, and big-budget (reportedly $110 million) adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s 1962 classic A Wrinkle in Time is most insightful when the action sticks to planet Earth. The screenplay by Jennifer Lee (Frozen) and Jeff Stockwell (Bridge to Terabithia) smoothly transfers the story’s initial setting to South Central Los Angeles and centers on a mixed-race family—the mom (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is black and dad (Chris Pine) is white—just one example of the film’s inclusive ensemble, with a teen girl of color fronting the sci-fi coming-of-courage tale. The earthbound beginning is the most dramatically successful portion of director Ava DuVernay’s fairly faithful version as it zeros in on warrior-to-be Meg (Storm Reid, in her first lead role) and her fraught middle school life. Meg—dressed in jeans, T-shirt, plaid shirt, and thick-rimmed glasses—stands apart from the school’s fashion-conscious social strata for her appearance and reticent demeanor. She closely resembles her counterpart in the book: prone to anger, impatience, and stubbornness, especially when she fights back against a bully. In a deft touch, the film also focuses on the insecurity and motivations of one of her tormentors. Besides being a social outcast, Meg's domestic situation adds to the school's rumor mill: her dad, a physicist with wildly unorthodox theories, has been missing without a trace for four years. Steadily the tone changes from sensitive drama to the fantastical when Meg, her adopted brother, Charles Wallace (the cherubic Deric McCabe); and neighborhood boy Calvin (Levi Miller) set out to rescue her Dad, traveling, or tessering in L'Engle's lingo, from planet to planet throughout the fifth dimension, guided by an intervening trio of intergalactic visitors to Earth. Reid plays Meg convincingly awkward, as well as understated—her discomfort and hesitation is apparent in the way her arms stay firmly glued to her side. But by the end, Reid's Meg shows moxie, perhaps more so than in L'Engle's original creation, in which the teen was sometimes sidelined in the decision-making by Charles Wallace and Calvin. On the other hand, the movie Meg gains confidence once she's seen through the eyes of her crush, Calvin. He tells her she has beautiful hair and, later, that she has “no idea how incredible you are.” The affirmations come more from without than within. Once the intergalactic travels begin, a layer of somberness, or hesitation, hovers over the proceedings. This is the one film made by Disney where the sidekicks, a Disney trope if ever there was one, are restrained. As part of a shape-shifting, time-traveling triumvirate aiding the kids, Oprah Winfrey, as the magisterial and maternal Mrs. Which, downplays her charisma, uttering axioms in a hushed tone. Her muted performance points to the relatively low wattage among the all-star cast.

Reese Witherspoon is Mrs. Whatsit (Disney)

The three sages essentially don't have much fun as the book’s pranksters with their playful banter and inside jokes. It's up to Reese Witherspoon, as Mrs. Whatsit, a whimsical newcomer to humans and their ways, to add some vigor, almost on her own. (Mindy Kaling plays Mrs. Who, who only speaks in quotes of and shout-outs to the internationally noteworthy—Kahlil Gibran, Rumi, Maya Angelou, and Frida Kahlo.) One actor, though, seizes the day with otherworldly flare: Bellamy Young from TV's Scandal in a cameo as a perfectly-coiffed prototype of a 1950s homemaker in a cookie-cutter suburb, where everyone cheerfully behaves the same way. (Straight from the source material, this sequence is one reason why the novel continues to be challenged to this day.) Mrs. Whatsit is described as “big hearted,” and the same could be said of this film. DuVernay never loses sight of Meg. Unlike, say, Tim Burton’s bombastic take on Alice in Wonderland, this movie, despite its epic story line and abundant special effects, is subtler. However, it feels a bit hesitant when it deviates from the book's imagery. L’Engle has given plenty of ready-made visual cues to the filmmakers. As described by the author, IT, the nebulous, monstrous being holding Meg's father prisoner, can take the form of a disembodied oversized quivering brain. IT is instead depicted as an inky black (read: dangerous) shape-shifter with countless tentacles, not far removed from the starfish-shaped aliens in Arrival. (At least IT is no longer referred to as the Black Thing, as it was in the source material.) Additionally, the trio of kids originally encountered the Man with Red Eyes in a towering and imposing edifice of the CENTRAL Central Agency. Meg and the gang now encounter him on a crowded, sun-drenched beach. Though the production design stays away from a predictable dark and murky dystopian worldview, Camazotz comes off as pedestrian and not very threatening. A Wrinkle in Time, set and played in a lower key, is quiet in comparison to the pure pop pulp of Ready Player One, an old-fashioned, though state-of-the-art, frolic. Perhaps director Steven Spielberg had an easier task at hand. His source material doesn't have the iconic stature of A Wrinkle in Time, though it’s no slouch. It was an SLJ 2011 Best Book, and SLJ praised Ernest Cline’s work as “a slam-dunk adult novel with teen appeal. [Cline] has said that his inspiration came from imagining if Willie Wonka were a video game designer rather than a candy maker, and that’s the best description of this creatively offbeat book.” This is, indeed, an apt summation. The novel readily lends itself, at least visually, to a film adaptation thanks to the inspiration from Cline's novel, which relies heavily on references to 1980s movies, music, and now-ancient looking video games. With a production budget of reportedly $175 million, Spielberg and his team used Cline’s world-building as a springboard to throw virtually every sort of special effect on the screen. (The author co-wrote the script and is one of the executive producers.) There are few frames that aren't digitalized, colorized, or layered with computer animation. It really should be seen on the big screen, given the emphasis is on the visual wizardry and action sequences rather than characterization. It features the sort of acting where the protagonist scratches his chin as he figures out his next move. Still, it has the can-do spirit of the teen underdogs in Back to the Future and The Goonies, movies Spielberg had a hand in executive producing three decades ago, and some of the adrenaline rush of his Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Tye Sheridan as Wade in Ready Player One (Warner Bros.)

The story line, though, is as thin as a pixel. It's set not too far in the future, 2045 to be exact, in Columbus, OH, which has become the fastest growing metropolis on Earth. To better himself and his aunt, orphaned Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) sets out to solve three riddles, all based on ’80s pop culture, that will unlock three Easter eggs hidden within the OASIS, a virtual reality universe where users can become idealized versions of themselves. One can climb Mount Everest with Batman, for example. Whoever wins the Easter eggs will win half a trillion dollars and complete control of OASIS. Spielberg and company take a different approach than DuVernay’s film, offering paltry character-setting exposition for Wade. His motivation to solve the riddles is as straightforward and uncomplicated as can be. (Strangely, given all of the advanced technology that the characters partake of onscreen, even in the future, there is still no easy way to safeguard a computer password.) The plot still centers largely on the quest of a white male hero, aided by a diverse group of comrades, who are all dedicated to his cause.

Art3mis and Parzival in Ready Player One (Warner Bros.)

In the OASIS, Wade takes on the moniker of Parzival, a tip of the hat to the seeker of the Holy Grail. He’s now blond with a tinge of blue, with a strut of a pop star. Joining him as an egg hunter is Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), whose role has been considerably amped-up from the book. She has also become the leader of a rebellion against Innovative Online Industries (IOI), which covets control of OASIS. She looks straight out of manga, big eyes and all, with her shock of red hair. (All of the actors are more animated as their lifelike avatars than when they appear in the “real” world.) Wade and Art3mis’s search for a particularly cryptic clue turns into an extended centerpiece of the movie, and a tribute to Stanley Kubrick. Here and throughout, the ’80s references are accessible and not esoteric. Viewers need not be cut-throat Trivial Pursuit players to know Blondie from Buckaroo Banzai, though it wouldn’t hurt. The songs that make up the wall-to-wall pop soundtrack never left the airwaves, and the movie’s timing is also fortunate, coming on the heels of the Netflix’s ’80s-fest Stranger Things and the steady flow of 1980s-based books, such as Paul Acampora’s recent Confusion Is Nothing New. Spielberg knows when to brake and allow for the characters and the audience to catch their breath. The pace powers the film, though at 142 minutes, it's too long for its thematically light narrative. Perhaps the only letdown for the book's fans is that, for all the talk about Easter eggs in the dialogue, there aren't any during or after the closing credits. If any movie should have one, it’s this one.

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