When we hurtled into 2018, along with Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War and Solo: A Star Wars Story, A Wrinkle in Time was one of the most anticipated movies of the year.

Not because it would be the latest, high-flying superhero adventure, or the next chapter in a mega-franchise. But because Madeleine L’Engle’s vision in her much-beloved novel about a young girl bravely defying the odds would finally receive the big-studio, big-budget, big-stars treatment it deserved.

Well, the money’s been spent and the stars are on hand, but L’Engle fans should be warned that the long wait for a major motion picture — the book was first published in 1962 — is an unsatisfying letdown.

A Wrinkle in Time is a movie at odds with itself. Instead of a compelling narrative flow, it comes at us in dribs and drabs, exchanging pacing and dramatic build-up for static set pieces. Characters get shortchanged. Just as they might become interesting, we cut away. When the film should be its most appealing and magical, it resets the bland button.

The message is still there: young girls who learn to believe in themselves can accomplish great things. But a message does not a movie make.

Our hero is middle schooler Meg Murry (Storm Reid). Her parents (Chris Pine and Gugu Mbatha-Raw) are brilliant if under-appreciated scientists. Dad in particular is obsessed with a theory that he can defy the limitations of space and time travel by using a “tesseract,” a kind of wrinkle through dimensions. In fact, one night he ends up tessering and vanishes from Earth.

The bulk of the story picks up four years later. Meg is teased and bullied by mean girls at school, while her super-bright younger brother Charles Wallace (an adorable Deric McCabe) is considered an oddball. She and her family have faith that Dr. Murry is out there somewhere, but people in town assume he simply abandoned his family and is never coming back.

Enter the three Mrs.

Meg, Charles Wallace and Meg’s friend Calvin (Levi Miller) are encouraged to head off into space to find Dr. Murry by three celestial beings: The ditzy Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), the intellectual Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), who never runs out of famous quotations, and a kind of oversized Mother of the Universe figure. She’s called Mrs. Which and she is played by a resplendent Oprah Winfrey, but whenever she came on screen, I could only think of her as GEO: Giant Ethereal Oprah.

As they move through space and time, the gang sees some weird worlds, get an assist from a seer named Happy Medium (Zach Galifianakis), are tricked by a beach dude named Red (Michael Pena) and learn about dark forces controlled by IT, a disembodied brain with tentacles that represents pure evil.

But they fight on. When Charles Wallace is brainwashed by IT, Meg must struggle to save him and try to get everyone back to Earth, including Calvin (who we kind of lose track of).

Part of the early buzz for this film last year was that it would be the first $100 million movie directed by a woman of color — Ava DuVernay.

Coming on the heels of Wonder Woman (directed by Sally Jenkins) and the success of other female-driven films like Beauty and the Beast, not to mention the tumultuous revelations of the #MeToo movement, A Wrinkle in Time was perfectly positioned to be the next chapter in the growing empowerment of women in the film industry.

DuVernay is an accomplished filmmaker who has directed excellent films (Selma, 13TH), but she makes some odd visual choices here. For some reason, she and her crew fell in love with the extreme close-up.

Used sparingly, it’s a highly effective technique to drive home emotions and inner thoughts, or to slap an exclamation point on dramatic scene. But overused, and A Wrinkle in Time is drowning in extreme close-ups, they can become a claustrophobic crutch. This story and these characters needed room to breathe.

One of the film’s producers, Catherine Hand, has worked for decades to bring L’Engle’s novel to the big screen. She was able to pull off a TV-movie version in 2004 that starred Alfre Woodard as Mrs. Whatsit and Kate Nelligan as Mrs. Which. But because of budget restrictions, both she and L’Engle (who passed away in 2007) were disappointed with the results, according to a recent NPR story.

Knowing this was a big-budget Disney film, I assumed the visuals and special effects would be spectacular. Instead, the film often looks shop-worn. The colorful wonders of the universe evoke the backdrop of a PBS kids show. At one point, an entrance by Mrs. Whatsit into the Murrys’ backyard looks like something borrowed from Samantha Stephens on the old Bewitched TV show.

As for the cast, Reid does not deliver the most dynamic performance. She underplays, and that doesn’t translate well to Meg’s space adventures. Pine is endearing in his brief moments. Witherspoon and Kaling’s characters are more like caricatures, and although Giant Ethereal Oprah is impressive and doles out good advice — “you just have to find the right frequency and have faith in who you are” — we don’t see her much.

In a preamble to the film, DuVernay tells us that A Wrinkle in Time is aimed at 11- and 12-year-olds, and the 11- and 12-year-olds in all of us. This is a wonderful notion. The execution, not so much.

Clint O’Connor covers pop culture. He can be reached at 330-996-3582 or coconnor@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @ClintOMovies.