"Some books just can't be adapted into movies" is a chintzy cop-out. But some books just can't be adapted into movies, and A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L'Engle's Newbery Medal-winning 1962 spiritual fantasy novel for children is an easy inclusion on that list. It would be easy enough to suppose that the book's litany of evocative, vivid worlds ought to be a good fit for big-budget effects-driven popcorn cinema. Except that much of the book's spectacle is of a sort that almost by definition can't be depicted visually,and much of its content is driven by fairly esoteric ideas (by the standards of children's fiction, anyway) derived from L'Engle's liberal Christian beliefs in the nature of moral behavior. It is a beautiful book - a beautiful book, and maybe best left that way.

Regardless, it's been adapted twice now, both times with money from Disney: first in 2003 as a remarkably ineffective, gruesomely cheap TV movie, and now as a reasonably well-budgeted popcorn movie for families that was always pretty clearly going to take 2018's incarnation of the John Carter/Tomorrowland, Disney's one annual box office failure of a confused non-franchise sci-fi film. And like both of those films - at least, like John Carter for sure - it's pretty damn depressing that's not very good, given what an obvious, tangible passion project this is. The film is the first gigantic studio job for director Ava DuVernay (her sixth feature overall), and it's very, very clear that she believes passionately in the material and its messages, which have been adjusted a bit: the film is humanist rather than Christian, and by silently revising the main character as a mixed-race child rather than the implicitly white protagonist of the book, DuVernay has looked to transform the story into a work of empowerment and representation of a sort she wanted and never had in her own youth.

The point being, this is a passion project, with its heart shining bright on its sleeve, choking on love for its characters in every moment. And it sucks a little bit even so. It's no fun at all to come to that conclusion: big sloppy passion projects that are drunk on visual ideas are one of my favorite things, so it's depressing that this one remains fumbling and mediocre rather than vigorously terrible. Also, the worst thing about the film - by a lot - is that its three child actor leads are all somewhat terrible, and tearing into child actors is just not a thing that makes you feel good about yourself.

So I'm not going to do that. Instead, let's start with, oh, how about the script, adapted by Jeff Stockton (whose last go-round with a canonical Newbery-winning work of children's literature was the 2007 adaptation of Bridge to Terabithia) and Jennifer Lee, one of Disney's big names on the back of Frozen. Which is telling, but not the good way: Frozen has many charms, but it also has many flaws, and the most glaring of those is probably its story structure, erratic and bumbling and rather confused about what its conflict is even supposed to be. A Wrinkle in Time is a little bit cleaner than that, but structure is still a conspicuous weak point, and so is its overall pacing: the film summarises and condenses the book's reasonably dense, idea-driven plot into a frantic travelogue through merrily gaudy landscapes, with the smallest amount of connective tissue that can possibly be gotten away with. The result is a dispiriting misfire: an idea-driven story that doesn't have time for ideas, so all that's left is an urgent, fast-paced exercise in telling rather than showing. And frequently not even telling all that well.

The plot, such as it is, circles around the unhappy Murry household: four years ago tomorrow, Dr. Alex Murry (Chris Pine, whose performance is noteworthy mostly for a white-speckled beard that looks like hell) went missing. Now, his wife Dr. Kate Murry (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, given absolutely nothing whatsoever worthwhile to do) mournfully tries to keep things together with her sullen, delinquent daughter Meg (Storm Reid, the only one of the child actors who ever does good work, though she does not do it often), and peppy, manic, unholy genius of an adopted son, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe). Charles Wallace is the absolute worst kind of child character: his ultra-precocious lines just barely worked in the book, but in cinema, it would take a once-in-a-generation eight-year-old to sell this part without sounding like a shrill little bad joke. McCabe isn't that.

Long story short, Mr. Dr. Murry was involved in some bleeding-edge research into quantum phenomena, and he disappeared because he accidentally warped across the galaxy. Now, a trio of highly-evolved beings of pure thought have taken up the job of going to rescue him, as he and his high-achieving family are to be part of the fight of the Light against the Dark. The beings embody themselves as colorful oddballs Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey, whose face has apparently been bedazzled in some remarkably ill-advised glittery makeup), and come to Earth to help Meg, Charles Wallace, and the boy with a crush on Meg, Calvin (Levi Miller, unpleasantly playing the character as a miniature 30-year-old actuary) warp across the universe, crossing through amazingly-designed and handsomely-executed worlds, while having blunt-force conversations that reduce L'Engle's cosmology to technobabble and render the characters as a collection of surface-level clichés about feeling like a social misfit (late in the film, Meg is confronted by her ideal version of herself, and it is a startlingly insightful and good gesture that comes much, much too late in the game to make Meg's arc more interesting; the other kids don't even get that much).

The film's beautiful settings, and some particularly vivid fantasy concepts (the creation of steps in air in a curvy white room through the power of pure math is a particularly excellent whimsy, and the only place where the film even for a little while points in the direction of how the book's esoterica might have been more persistently visualised) keep it going for a while. So does its blessedly swift pace. But the film is, ultimately just not interesting, and its mildly shrill, flat-footed performances make the three main characters rather more annoying to spend time with than otherwise. It's a film that, to be sure, feels like it could be a beloved childhood cult object, for a viewer of just the right - seven would be my guess, maybe eight - but it's the kind of childhood treasure that one is not happy to revisit as an adult. It's much to confused, and frankly shallow for a movie that is so much about ideas and philosophies, things it only presents in the most flat, lead-footed way; beautiful CGI can paper over that, but it can't do much more.