Visually splendid but narratively incoherent, this adaptation of the young adult novel is an unruly mess

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There are a lot of wrinkles in “A Wrinkle in Time,” director Ava DuVernay’s well-intentioned but clumsy adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s 1962 sci-fi young adult novel.

Lovely to look at, but narratively disjointed, this children’s fantasy aims high, but falls well short of its intended goal. It’s a film that asks you to think like a 12-year-old — at a screening, DuVernay (“Selma”) herself appeared in a video introduction and asked the audience to do so — but that’s not enough to forgive or explain away its uneven plot and thematic inconsistencies. It’s a cop-out at best, an insult to 12-year-old minds at worst.

Fourteen-year-old Storm Reid makes a positive impression in the lead role, in which she plays Meg, a girl deeply disturbed by the mysterious disappearance of her father, Dr. Alex Murry (Chris Pine), four years prior. Murray was an astrophysicist whose theories on the bending of time and space were getting him laughed out of lecture halls but swears he was on “the precipice of something spectacular!” the way characters in these types of movies are wont to do. Students at school tease Meg about her missing father, saying they wish she’d go missing, too. (That’s harsh — and also implausible.)

Meg’s mother, Kate (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who was her husband’s scientific partner, is an emotional shell after her husband’s disappearance. But she puts on a brave face for Meg and Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), her precocious-to-the-point-of-obnoxious younger son.

One night during a rainstorm, the Murrys are visited by a fairy godmother-type named Mrs. Whatsit. Played by Reese Witherspoon, Whatsit has a tinge of whimsy in her smile, just enough to be enticing. She invites herself into their home and speaks of the existence of tesseracts, which were a part of Dr. Murry’s studies, having to do with the ability to pass through to different dimensions. Could she hold the key to Murry’s whereabouts?

Following Whatsit, we’re introduced to two more eccentric “astral travelers,” Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), who only speaks in attributed quotes, citing everyone from ancient philosophers to OutKast, and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), who appears in the form of a platitude-spewing, 20-foot tall, part-hologram giant. The three of them, along with Meg’s generic boyfriend-type Calvin (Levi Miller), gather with Meg and Charles Wallace in the Murry’s backyard, where they enter into a dimensional portal and begin their search for Dr. Murry.

They wind up in a magic land full of rolling green hills and bountiful bodies of water — think “What Dreams May Come,” with slightly less watercolor — where Mrs. Whatsit is free to transform into a leafy flying creature and take the kids for a ride on her back. Whee! But there’s danger in the sky: An amorphous black blob, known as “The It,” which is described as the embodiment of pure evil. As luck would have it, “The It” holds the key to Dr. Murry’s fate. Man. So much for those fun rides through the sky on Whatsit’s back.

This is where “A Wrinkle” crumbles to pieces. A vague message of love and positivity runs through the script by Jennifer Lee (“Frozen”) and Jeff Stockwell (“The Ottoman Lieutenant”), and occupies most of the dialogue by Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which (Oprah is almost always filmed in extreme close-ups, highlighting her metallic lipstick and bejeweled eyebrows). But that overly basic message doesn’t do enough to advance the story, or even explain what’s going on in large parts of the final act, which gets bogged down in incoherence as its special effects run amok. Sure, all you need is love, but what exactly is going on here? The visuals dazzle but are sometimes silly. When Dr. Murry’s finally found, it looks like he has been hiding out on the sets of Drake’s “Hotline Bling” video.

As young Charles Wallace — he is always referred to as “Charles Wallace,” never Charles or Chuck or CW, just Charles Wallace, which becomes more grating every time his name is spoken — McCabe is asked to shoulder far more than he can handle, and his performance folds under the emotional weight. The climactic showdown between he and Meg is calamitous, as is a brief, dumbfounding appearance by Michael Pena, who plays a villainous mustached figure.

When it finally finds its path home, “A Wrinkle in Time’s” emotional payoff falls short and leaves too many questions lingering. “Interstellar” had similar issues. Any time filmmakers try to conflate big ideas about love with inter-dimensional travel, problems arise. (At least this one didn’t involve a Space Library.)

“A Wrinkle in Time” is a rather unruly mess, and when you untangle it, all you wind up with a ball of nothing. Give it some time, and maybe it will become a camp classic. But for now it’s a great big whatsit.

agraham@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2284

@grahamorama

‘A Wrinkle in Time’

GRADE: C-

Rated PG for thematic elements and some peril

Running time: 120 minutes

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