This weekend was a historic one for the movie box office. For the first time in history, two major releases battled it one for first and second place, Black Panther and A Wrinkle In Time, both of which were made by and starred African Americans. But while Black Panther opened to rave reviews a few weeks ago, A Wrinkle In Time has found itself stumbling with the critics, who complained about the deviations from the novel and the little-kid aim of the film.
But A Wrinkle In Time is no worse an adaptation than Mary Poppins was in 1964, and that's considered a classic. The difference is that we forgot that "Disneyfication" means something very different now, and that's what hurts Wrinkle's reputation.
Once upon a time, back before Disney was the multi-platform titan of the entertainment industry that it is today, their reputation was for making "cartoons for children." Movies from Walt Disney Pictures were considered mass bowdlerization of the material they used. Despite the occasional Bambi or The Black Cauldron, their hit retellings of Hans Christian Anderson stories mostly elided the violence and gory nature of the originals. The whole concept of "Disney" embodied everything wrong with America, a refusal to see the darkness in the world, and a substitution of round-faced childlike entertainment for more grown-up fare. It's only in the last decade, with the addition of Marvel and Lucasfilm, that the company has managed to shake off that reputation. But that collective amnesia by the part of moviegoers ignores that these films are ultimately always family friendly, too. (Deadpool rode to hit status on the premise of making fun of Disney's Marvel and their stodgy PG values.)
A Wrinkle in Time is not a children's book for the innocent or the uplifted. It is an angry book, filled with the interior monologue of a self-loathing 13-year-old girl. Meg Murry is awkward and clumsy, stuck in braces and out of control hair, in a world where she's bombarded with images of perfect women, attempting to get a harness on the changes around and inside her. Like true fairy tales, this is not a book of just rainbows and delights, popping from world to world. There are certainly wonders — Mrs. Whatsit, Which, and Who are at one point revealed to be rainbow centaurs in their real forms. (Not flying cabbage creatures who look like feminine cousins of Groot.)
But these wonders find balance by being couched in a world where kids eat liverwurst. Meg's mega-intelligent "perfect" brother Charles Wallace likes liverwurst and cream cheese sandwiches. The night when Mrs. Whatsit blows in is dark and stormy. Most importantly (and probably hardest to translate to a 21st-century audience) are the parables where our heroes refuse to give in and conform, which are as much an anti-communist lesson as one about the perils of the teenage years.
Disney and Duvernay remove the liverwurst. The centaurs are replaced by dancing flowers, the tears of the Happy Medium and lessons about balance disappear into jokes about pilates and the weirdness of Aunt Beast was cut completely. That Disney would want to take this and gloss over the hardships to emphasize the rainbows should come as a surprise to no one. That Duvernay went seems to be what confuses people. But it shouldn't.
Duvernay has said repeatedly this is a movie for those who never were given this type of film, aka African American girls. Most nerd culture fare of the last decade (including the later Harry Potter films) aimed for an adult audience, despite most of the source material being derived from children's literature. Audiences walk into something like A Wrinkle in Time expecting the film to be made for them. This is not. This is a film made for children under 12, with a secondary audience of kids 13-18. Meanwhile, the Rotten Tomato demographics that pan this movie are 91% white male critics.
Maybe those of us doing the judging need to remember we're not the audience. Dozens – hundreds – of movies have already been made for us. More importantly, before anyone trashes Wrinkle, they should ask themselves how they felt when Disney did this exact same thing to the source material in an all-white production with a male-centric storyline. Because this is the same thing that Disney did over fifty years ago to another children's classic, Mary Poppins.
Much like Wrinkle, the Mary Poppins book is not one that naturally lends itself to the Disney spirit. It is as much a children's book as a send-up of the British middle classes of the time period. The children love Mary Poppins not because she is sweet and kind, but because she is paying attention to them. Poppins herself is cross, full of self-regard, quick to be insulted and quicker to insult back. She's utterly stern with her charges, sometimes bordering on downright mean. She does not think twice about punishing bad behavior, including one terrifying chapter where Jane is trapped inside the painting of a Royal Doulton bowl for misbehaving. Disney replaced these with spoons full of sugar, dancing penguin cartoons, and the white male protagonist getting a happy ending.
And yet, no one is out here complaining that Mary Poppins is somehow not certified fresh, despite the source material having been trampled on the way to creating a child-friendly, Disneyfied fantasy. In fact, Pamela Travers' horror at what Disney did to her work was turned into an Oscar bait film (Saving Mr. Banks). Currently, Disney is hurrying to bring us a sequel this fall (Mary Poppins Returns, the trailer for which is running as part of the previews during A Wrinkle In Time).
Ava Duvernay has done nothing to A Wrinkle In Time that director Robert Stevenson didn't do to Mary Poppins back in 1964. Both films should be treated equally as classics meant for children. With Mary Poppins now getting a sequel, will Wrinkle be rewarded the same? Or will Duvernay be punished for giving black girls the Disney film they never had? Let's hope the 21st century is ready to do better than that.