I'd more or less given up on kid-oriented fantasy films. It was only about ten years ago that they stopped imitating the Star Wars formula of a slacker kid finding out he's prince of the universe. They've instead been imitating The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, making up more and more alternate fantasy universes for imaginative kids to slip into, conquer, and come home in time for supper. Taken from Katherine Paterson's influential book about a young teen learning life lessons, Bridge to Terabithia is a pleasant surprise. Its 'fantasy universe' theme is always one step removed from the real-life problems of its likeable kid hero, who holds up well under adolescent stress. Talented young actors Josh Hutcherson and AnnaSophia Robb push what could have been an over-sentimentalized After School Special into deeper territory, and the direction of former animation supervisor Gabor Csupo gives the show class all the way.
Bridge to Terabithia is a positive experience. The sensitive story has its PC aspects, to be sure. Creativity is youth's greatest blessing; the only people to praise Jesse's pictures are Leslie and his spirited teacher. Young Leslie Burke is a take-charge wonder with no visible weaknesses, while Jesse is a stack of family resentments and other issues. All negative behaviors are assigned tidy explanations. The crabby teacher has suffered a loss and Jesse's dad has work and money pressures. Even the school terror, cruel eighth grader Janice Avery (Lauren Clinton) has a motivation for her malice. But screenwriters Jeff Stockwell and David Paterson keep the story on task; we like the people and we care what happens to them. It's a kind of film rarely made for kids these days: hard to get them to watch and then hard to tear them away once they're hooked.
The school scenes and kid interaction are mostly excellent, especially knowing that the movie was filmed in New Zealand. Only once or twice are the kids given things to say that are simply too adult. The perky Leslie character is meant to be smarter and more hip than the other kids her age, and the story is wise not to have her precocity translate into popularity. Nor does Jesse's sense of ethics (he's extremely self-controlled dealing with bullies) make justice and fairness prevail. When Jesse and Leslie retaliate with their own rather cruel trick to bring the tyrannical Janice Avery down a peg, we don't share in their sense of victory. The childhood life lessons aren't distilled into simple cause and effect. Even the villains deserve our sympathy.
The biggest surprise in Bridge to Terabithia is finding out that it is not about a journey into a magic fantasyland. Jesse and Leslie instead make up their own fanciful creatures that live in the forest across the creek. They discover a giant troll, fight warrior hedgehogs and hairy vultures and are defended by an armada of armored dragonfly pixies. These afternoon adventures never overshadow the real-life problems at home. Leslie's workaholic writer parents have no time for her so she's delighted to have Jesse as a companion. Jesse could use a better relationship with his dad, who has mostly harsh words for him and belittles his artwork.
That brings us to the crush Jesse has on his teacher, Ms. Edmonds. Leslie encourages Jesse to ignore the bullies and help Ms. Edmonds carry heavy boxes, and the teacher thinks he's something special. She invites Jesse to a museum in the city, a 'date' that seems a bit more than just a teacher encouraging a blossoming young artist. And we can tell that Jesse is thinking along the same lines, as he has an opportunity to invite Leslie as well but chooses to instead have Ms. Edmonds to himself for the day. From little choices come big feelings of guilt.
The book has been challenged by parent's groups as unsuitable for children because of its attitude toward Christianity. Author Katherine Paterson said that she doesn't mind defending her work, yet feels bad about causing trouble for teachers and librarians. In the film Jesse takes Leslie to a church service: "you won't like it." Leslie later admits that she doesn't know anything about Jesus yet thought his story was beautiful. They make a distinction between Jesus as a belief and Jesus as a 'story.' Later on, Jesse is upset because he thinks Leslie may be going to Hell. Some newspaper stories surfaced about protests that the film was unsuitable because of this 'anti-faith' theme, with quotes condemning the story because Jesse and Leslie go off on flights of fancy without proper (Christian) supervision. The story considers Jesus as just another issue in the kid's lives, instead of the solution to their problems.
Googling the words 'bridge to terabithia jesus' on the web got me a number of Christian sites relating to the film. For every watchdog page criticizing the movie or enumerating its offenses to 'correct thinking' (such as CAP Alert), I found Christian-oriented pages with a much more thoughtful approach, like this Methodist review. Another Christianity Today review was equally reasonable and actually flattering to the movie. Even though it zeroes in to alert us that Zooey Deschanel plays a 'semi-hippie' character (not that!), the review makes the very good point that in Terabithia the kids create their own fantasy world, rather than simply discover it. That puts the film closer to the disturbing Heavenly Creatures than The Chronicles of Narnia. 1
Ultimately, what's refreshing about Bridge to Terabithia is its low-key approach to fantasy and its avoidance of the usual knee-jerk payoff scenes. Wolfgang Petersen's The NeverEnding Story is wonderful, but it ends with the depressing kid-vengeance spectacle of three bullies chased by the friendly flying dragon. In Terabithia, events force Jesse and his main tormentor to simply grow beyond the bullying stage. It's a very satisfying movie. The child actors are terrific, and the story on screen is more than intelligent enough to engage adults.
Disney's Widescreen edition of Bridge to Terabithia looks fine on DVD in an expected flawless and colorful enhanced transfer. The fact that the film was made in New Zealand explains both the presence of an odd animal caught in Jesse's father's trap and the very Lord of the Rings-ish quality of the effects, which were done by WETA. They tend toward generic 'magical kingdom' visions, but the occasional amusing critter shot gives the action scenes impact. Again, since most of the story takes place in ordinary reality, the effects do not dominate.
The extra bonus features (full list below) start with two audio commentaries. Director Gabor Csupo seems content with his first full-length feature outing, and actor Josh Hutcherson talks about his voice changing during the five months of production, which presented a challenge when it came time to ADR dub his lines. Several okay featurettes approach the filming of the digital effects and the book's themes, which are discussed by teachers as well as the filmmakers. Probable star-to-be AnnaSophia Robb sings in a music video as well.
The disc also has full dubs in French and Spanish language; a second flat release is available. The cover illustration gives AnnaSophia Robb long hair, making her look like somebody else.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Bridge to Terabithia rates:
1. Frankly, charming as it was, Jesse and Leslie's magic world is pretty generic ... to some degree, they're still mentally re-packaging other people's fantasies. Frankly, a real Jesse would probably inhabit his fantasy world with many of his favorite characters from movies and TV shows. The kicker is that the monster troll imagined by Jesse and Leslie is given the face and likeness of the main bully back in reality. So we're back to The Wizard of Oz after all.
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