From a distance, Disney's sci-fi fantasy "A Wrinkle in Time" appears to be a sure thing. The project comes with the name recognition and goodwill of Madeleine L'Engle's evergreen YA novel, a boatload of splashy visual effects, an Oscar-nominated director in Ava DuVernay ("Selma," "13th") and a multicultural trio of stars in Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling. But a closer look reveals a downright awkward kiddie blockbuster.
Like most family fantasies, DuVernay's "A Wrinkle in Time" wants desperately to be "The Wizard of Oz," with its journey to a colorfully wondrous world and its trio of comical adults helping a child protagonist overcome an unambiguous evil. Storm Reid stars as Meg Murry, a grade-schooler still reeling from the sudden disappearance of her father four years earlier. NASA scientist Dr. Alex Murry (Chris Pine) theorized and experimented with radical space and time teleportation, launched not with a rocket but the human mind. A breakthrough in his work left his partner and wife, Dr. Kate Murry (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), Meg and her precocious little brother, Charles Wallace Murry (Deric McCabe), to wonder if they'll ever see him again.
Then, one evening, a total freak named Mrs. Whatsit (Witherspoon) terrifyingly injects herself into a Murry family conversation. We soon learn she was invited in by Charles Wallace, but Kate's lack of curiosity at this home invasion cements the fatally untethered tone: People simply don't act this way. Charles Wallace has apparently been hanging out with at least one other strange woman, a neighbor going by Mrs. Who (Kaling), who communicates more or less exclusively in literary and philosophical quotations (sample: "The wound is the place that the light enters you. Rumi, Persian").
These cheery weirdos defer to Mrs. Which (Winfrey), whose arrival (in giant size befitting Oprah's status) heralds adventure for Charles Wallace, Meg, and the boy whose eye she's caught, Calvin (Levi Miller). Before you can say "over the rainbow," the sextet transports, or "tessers," to the far-flung world where Meg's father languishes, lost. What follows is a series of weightless scenes, empty sensation and platitudes with a final destination of "That's it?"
To be fair, "A Wrinkle in Time" does stumble through a character arc for Meg, whose empowerment means learning to see her own beauty and appreciate her own gifts of insight and personality -- faults and all -- to come into her heroic own, save the day and join Oprah's team of "warriors who serve the good and light in the universe." And DuVernay musters brief spurts of movie magic (as when the characters dash down a hill populated by a field of conscious, floating flowers). Charm, however, has taken a holiday, and that's a big problem.
The galumphing narrative and flatfooted whimsy lean hard on design, ever-present music and dazzling special effects, but with characters that never fully register, the whole film amounts to a kind of optical-aural illusion: 100 minutes pass and nothing of consequence seems to happen. Even the climax manages to feel anti-climactic. Emblematic of the film's troubles is the requisite "wheeeee!" sequence in which Whatsit turns into some kind of flying flatworm and the kids take a magic carpet ride on her back. The big bad -- "an evil that's actively spreading through the universe" -- appears in the sky, and moments later, our characters land right back where they started, having traveled nowhere. This "Wrinkle" never gets more relatable than that.