A Wrinkle in Time is an ambitious movie and its scope outstrips its narrative ability, resulting in an uneven but occasionally enthralling fantasy. Meg (Storm Reid, terrific) is introduced helping her father, Alex Murry (Chris Pine, terrific) in his lab. He’s doing an experiment with sand and frequencies, and talking about how finding just the right frequency can do…something. This is as much explanation as we get regarding Alex Murry’s attempts to fold space-time, which is the mechanism that drives the entire plot. So right off Wrinkle has a problem, and that is that the script, from Jennifer Lee (Frozen) and Jeff Stockwell (Bridge to Terabithia), does not adequately establish what the f*ck is happening. Exposition is a problem in films, especially sci-fi/fantasy films that require a lot of world-building, but on the scale of “too much exposition” and “not enough exposition”, Lee and Stockwell err on the side of “not enough” and the result is that characters in Wrinkle can “tesser” across the universe through the power of believing in themselves, or something. I’m sure a book reader can explain it, but a movie is a different thing and should not require footnotes.

Still, that’s not a disastrous issue. It’s just low-key confusing when all of a sudden people can just poof across the universe because they’re super self-confident or whatever. What saves Wrinkle in the early going is the strength of the characters. Meg is immediately identifiable and relatable, a girl uncomfortable in her own body, smart but not applying herself, tortured by a bully and berated by teachers because she’s too much. She’s too tall, too awkward, too angry—her father disappeared four years ago, why aren’t you over it yet, Meg? (Basically something a teacher says to her.) Her younger brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe, a child) is harder to relate to, being a super genius who dresses like a forty-five-year-old accountant. But he’s a little sparky, telling off teachers gossiping about what happened to his father. 

The characters keep Wrinkle feeling light even as the plot grinds away around them, especially once “the missus” start appearing. Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) appears in the Murrys’ backyard, already acquainted with Charles Wallace, and Meg and her mother (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, given very little to do) recover quickly enough to cope with the stranger marching through their home. In rapid succession we meet Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), and Wrinkle blows through their introductions so fast their arrivals hardly feel special. There is no build or mystery to the coming of these strange women—not even when Mrs. Which appearing as big as a building makes her really impressive. We’re back to the script which is already on life support.

But those characters! DuVernay knows how to work with actors, and she gets solid performances from everyone, especially Storm Reid. The kids who fall in love with Wrinkle will do so because Meg is indelible. Once Meg starts traversing the universe, the worlds she visits don’t feel all that special or amazing. (No time is spent developing any one location into a real place, and the alien worlds look like screensavers.) The one world that stands out is the domain of the Happy Medium (Zach Galifianakis, good but it feels like at least half his performance got cut). The Happy Medium’s dwelling is a series of amber balancing beams, and as everyone else bounds around effortlessly, Meg stumbles and shakes and repeatedly almost falls. It’s not a particularly subtle metaphor but it’s an effective one, particularly for anyone who has ever wondered why life seems so easy for everyone else (so, basically, everybody). Meg just can’t get the hang of balancing, and this whole scene sings as her self-consciousness and self-doubt are played out within the context of the world she’s in. If only more of Wrinkle operated like this one scene, but it doesn’t. Character development for everyone but Meg gets short shrift, as does plot development. The result is that Wrinkle feels like a series of interconnected happenings and not one cohesive narrative.

A Wrinkle in Time is okay. It’s not great. It’s not bad. Some parts of it are fun/cool/delightful. Other parts are clunky/slow/confusing. It might be unfilmable. It might be better suited for television. It’s definitely a movie with big ideas, a broken script, and some visuals that are neat and others that are spawned from the uncanny valley. It’s not perfect, it’s not totally a mess. It won’t be the defining young adult movie of a generation, but there is a pocket of kids who will latch onto A Wrinkle in Time HARD, who will love it as passionately as earlier generations love other strange fantasy movies like The Phantom Tollbooth, The Neverending Story, The Last Unicorn, or more recently, Stardust. It’s an imperfect movie with a big heart, and though it will have its detractors, it will also have its fans.