A film review by Craig J. Koban
Rank: # 17
BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA
2007, PG, 95 mins. Jess Aaron: Josh Hutcherson / Leslie Burke: AnnaSophia Robb / Maybelle Aarons: Bailee Madison
/ Mr. Aarons: Robert Patrick Directed by Gabor Csupo / Written by Jeff Stockwell and David Paterson
/ Based on the book by Katherine Paterson
2007, PG, 95 mins.
Jess Aaron: Josh Hutcherson / Leslie Burke: AnnaSophia Robb / Maybelle Aarons: Bailee Madison / Mr. Aarons: Robert Patrick
Directed by Gabor Csupo / Written by Jeff Stockwell and David Paterson / Based on the book by Katherine Paterson
“Just close your eyes, but keep your mind wide open.”
- AnnaSophia Robb
from BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA.
BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA was not at all the film that I was expecting when I initially entered the theatre. It represents one of the finest and most concrete examples of how a modern studio – in their ultimate ignorance – can completely mislead the film-going public with an utterly fraudulent advertising campaign.
The trailers for the film made it look like yet another one of those watered-down and lame bastard sons of successful fantasy films like THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA and THE LORD OF THE RINGS. BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA is not a fantasy film. It sparingly uses elements of fantasy to tell its story of family and friendship. What’s most surprising is how poignant, endearing, touching, and genuinely moving the film is. This is not only one of the best family films in a long while; it’s one of the best films of 2007 thus far...period.
I hate the label "children’s film". That is so condescending. It kind of actually reveals what I displike about most modern kid-centric films that are churned out one after the other: they are sanitized, dumbed down beyond relief, and pander down to their entire collective audience base as if they were all five year olds. I find the genre designation family film much more appropriate in the sense that the truly best of them attempt to appease all audience members beyond age. Great family films don’t age discriminate; they appeal equally to everyone in the crowd.
That’s the subtle, hidden key to BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA’s success. It most certainly will find many young viewers (say, ages 8 and up) relating to the main characters (the film is ostensibly told from their prerogatives), but the themes it contains are mature and strike a strong emotional cord. There are elements of comedy, drama, and – especially in the film’s final act – tragedy that no one will see coming. Weak family films pull their punches and cop out for warmed-over sentiment. BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA wisely points out that – yes – life can be cruel and bad things can happen. It’s so rare to find family films in our age that are not afraid to tackle heavy issues and subject matter with poise and tact.
Perhaps this is why the book that inspired the film – written by Katherine Paterson in 1977 – has been a frequent target of censors and appears on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-2000 (it was ranked at number nine). There have been other books that have aroused such ludicrous stigmatisms, like Harper Lee’s TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, for one. I saw many similarities between both works while watching BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA. Both deal with the ties of family and friends and both deal with their very young characters trying to make sense of things in a very adult world. Both works are also about kindred spirits and how friendship binds people together in the midst of despair. BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA is very much a film about dealing with loss, and in some scenes it is sad, as in reach for the box of Kleenex and cry a river sad. I found myself nearly doing just so.
Dammit, why would Walt Disney Studios allow such deceitful advertising behind this film? Why? Are they so afraid to market a mature family film with difficult content that no one would dare see it? Or, maybe they thought that the film’s flashy CG effects and fantastical imagery – all that occupy mere seconds of the film at times – would be enough. I dunno. I am just dumbfounded. BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA owes very little to NARNIA, LOTR, or HARRY POTTER. It’s more of a tender and sweet coming of age story, like STAND BY ME or MY GIRL. It is a family melodrama that has young characters using their limitless imaginations to escape the daily grind of school bullies, loud mouth teachers, and distant parents. There is a grounded realism to the film that ultimately makes it so successful.
More than anything, the film keenly delivers on showcasing the intense power of childlike imagination to overcome any obstacle. The film’s two main characters are as creative as any I’ve come across in other family films. Jesse Aarons (in a very good performance by Josh Hutcherson) is a misunderstood youth. He goes to school and his fifth grade classmates bully him constantly. He has very few friends and his only solace that he finds is with his pencil and paper.
He is an aspiring artist and a very good one at that, but most of his peers at school and his father (played in another solid, low key supporting performance by Robert Patrick) thinks he should use his time for something better. Jesse comes from a poor family and his father works at a hardware store and the family farm, desperately trying to make end’s meat. He rides the boy considerably (“Maybe you can draw us some money one of these days and help out,” he lashes out at one point). Even worse, when his mom throws out his old sneakers right before a big track race at school, she forces him to wear a “perfectly good pair” she has for him…but they are girl’s shoes. No caring mother should ever send their harassed son to school with girl shoes, but I digress.
One day at the race he meets another misunderstood child. She is the new cute girl that has just arrived at his school, Leslie (played by the plucky and charming AnnaSophia Robb). At first, she seems like such a polar opposite to the introverted Jesse; she is friendly, out-going, and sassy. Yet, what ultimately binds the two together is their sense of isolation from the rest of the world. Both of them are misunderstood by their respective classmates, which only draws the two together. Their first meeting is an atypical meet cute: Jesse shows a lot of anger towards her at first. Slowly, the two begin to form a bond and they begin spending every day after school together. One day Leslie decides to take Jesse on a journey to a largely uncharted section of the nearby forest. At this point she opens up his eyes to the magical world of Terabithia.
No, they don’t actually travel to a mythical land populated by strange and exotic creatures. They don’t get whisked away by a tornado like Dorothy, nor do they fall down a rabbit hole like Alice, nor do they walk through a magical wardrobe. More specifically, Terabithia is in their minds. The more time the two spend there, the more their eyes open up to all of its strange, ethereal beauty. And what fruitful and immaculate imaginations the two have! Their tree house becomes a secret fortress, trees around them come to life, giant creatures lurk around them, and forest life changes to man-eating monsters. This is their world and no one else is allowed in. While there, all of the hardships they endure disappear.
The time Jesse and Leslie have there improves their relationships and sense of well being outside of it. Beyond Terabithia Jesse learns to love his little sister more and grows to feel more confident and secure with his artistic abilities. Maybe this also has something to do with the fact that his music teacher encourages his artistic expression…and that she is very cute (played by the very cute Zooey Deschanel and I can guarantee you that if she were my teacher, I would fall for her as well). One nice scene has her taking Jesse to an art gallery for the first time to explore the world of art. He was supposed to meet up with Leslie at Terabithia, but his crush for the teacher and art propels him to go. His eyes are transfixed to the work he sees. As he goes home he has a newfound sense of self-efficacy. Unfortunately for him, his trip that day leads into a deep tragedy that will change him forever.
I have so much respect for the fact that BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA has the nerve and fortitude to stand up and be about something. It’s not one of those intensely sugarcoated and saccharine family films that go for the lowest common denominator of story threads. Being a virgin to the source material, I was surprised by how unpredictable the story proceeded and was especially surprised by a twist in the film that led it into some very dark territory. Nothing about the film is dumb, for lack of a better word. Instead, the story is told with wit, intelligence, and a sincerity that seems all but vacant in a lot of other run-of-the-mill family fare. Watching the film I was reminded of other classic entertainments like E.T. - THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL in the sense that it involves young people that are written and performed just right and how they have to deal problems that seem foreign to them. Both films have fantasy elements, but the hearts of both of them center squarely on themes of friendship. There are moments of BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA that tugs on your heartstrings in many ways that E.T. did. Okay, maybe no other family film has a more teary-eyed ending than that 1982 film, but BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA lurks closely behind.
The film has fun with all of its magical imagery, but the awe-inspiring visuals are kept to a minimum. This film is about human interaction; without strong and assured performances by most of the leads, it would be sunk. The film rests squarely on the shoulders of its child stars, and they do not disappoint. Josh Hutcherson delivers such a melancholic and stirring performance as the hapless youth that finds happiness in his newfound friend, and AnnaSophia Robb exudes the much needed charisma and tenacity with her energetic Leslie. Just as important are the adult characters, and their performances are strong too. Too often the older characters in these films are marginalized stooges, but in this film’s case there are legitimate figures with real-life issues and problems. Robert Patrick gives thankless performances as the father that comes across as a bad S.O.B., but he has legitimate concerns of supporting his family. The lack of shallowness of the films characters – adult and youth – is what gives the film a layered texture.
Walt Disney Pictures is so ass-backward wrong about its marketing of the wonderful and sublime family drama BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA that I almost kind of shook my head in disbelief as the end credits rolled by. This is not a film of CGI overkill. It is not CHRONICLES OF NARNIA-lite. It is not a recycled and derivative fantasy film. BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA is a loving and terrifically envisioned adaptation of the beloved and award winning children’s novel and is a transfixing meditation of childhood friendship, vivid imagination, hardship and loss. This is drama, not a visual effects extravaganza, that deals with how lonely souls connect with one another and how the power of boundless imagination can take them out of their troubled lives and into the realm of make-believe. Their created world of Terabithia gives them a safety net from the trials and tribulations of a world they often don’t want to inhabit. In a way, it’s about being young, whimsical, full of life, and having fun. The film is told brilliantly with simple and defined strokes and manages to infuse edgier material in without it being manipulative. Simple put – I loved the film. BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA is one of the most delightful surprises I have had in a long time. It’s a great family entertainment.