TUCSON, Ariz. - Ava DuVernay has gone from "Selma" to sellout.
The acclaimed director, who built her career on resonant, socially-minded and lauded indie films "Selma" and "13th," took a studio paycheck and gave up her artistic integrity for the putrid, bloated "A Wrinkle in Time" adaptation.
Desperate to fit into the "Harry Potter" template, DuVernay and screenwriter Jennifer Lee gut the Madeline L'Engle children's book of its thought-provoking and resonant themes, blasting it with an overgrown effects budget to leave what resembles an acid trip in its place.
L'Engle's writing artfully intertwined quantum physics with Christian themes for sagas that hopped galaxies and timelines. This film, apparently in an effort to avoid offending anyone, dispenses with the religious stuff and minimizes the science to fall back on the lazy concept of magic.
The movie also does away with significant characters that later films in the series -- if there are any -- will have to conjure into existence. What is clearly intended as the start of a five-film series may well fizzle out in the manner of "The Chronicles of Narnia."
The talents mega-star triumvirate of Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling are wasted on characters that may as well have been animated, aphorism-uttering fairy godmothers. Entities that L'Engle devised as shape-shifting, time-traveling, science-studying centaurs instead appear as glitter-lipsticked renaissance fair rejects whose sole purpose is to abruptly shift the setting from one strange setting to the next.
The movie is at its best in the opening scenes, before the CGI mumbo jumbo starts messing with everything. Storm Reid plays Meg, a teen coping with the loss of her father, who disappeared while performing time travel experiments. She copes with social ostracism and misunderstanding from authority figures at home and at school in a heartbreaking manner. Then suddenly everything changes and it's off to Weirdville.
Meg's genius younger brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) starts talking with mystical figures who want to help track down their dad. Meg's crush, Calvin (Levi Miller) tags along, and it becomes tough to keep track of the barrage of ever-shifting realities they traipse through as they continue their search.
The plotting resembles video game logic more than anything, with characters conquering computer-animated level after level until they confront the end boss for a final battle. Oddly, the villain is pretty much the same as the nemesis in "It."
The true villain, though, is the insipid screenplay, and there is no overcoming its monstrous stranglehold on what turns out to be a wreck of a film. Here's hoping DuVernay overcomes the setback and uses the financial comfort she gained from taking part in this travesty to continue to pursue passion projects that give her something to say.