Bridge to Terabithia (2007) / Drama-Fantasy
MPAA Rated: PG for thematic elements
Running Time: 95 min.
Cast: Josh Hutcherson, AnnaSophia Robb, Zooey Deschanel, Robert Patrick, Bailee Madison, Lauren Clinton, Kate Butler, Jen Wolfe
Director: Gabor Csupo
Screenplay: Jeff Stockwell, David Paterson (based on the book by Katherine Paterson)
Review published March 1, 2007
David Paterson (Love Ludlow), son of author Katherine Paterson, co-writes this script based on his mother's Newberry Medal-winning book from the late 1970s. Although a popular work, the book has also been criticized by some parents and groups for its subject matter (such as mortality and the opening up of possibilities to beliefs outside of strict adherence to Christian teachings), which this film version continues, albeit to a much lesser extent. Some people may feel that a children's book or movie is not the place for such heavy issues, perhaps feeling that they will learn of these things at their pace. I won't even indulge in these arguments (they're not really important as to the film's worth), although I do admit that the most interesting parts of this movie, at least from my adult perspective, are the ones where it deviates from pat and predictable children's fare to strike a deeper chord. Without them, this would be just another film about overly imaginative kids.
Josh Hutcherson (RV, Zathura) stars as Jesse Aarons, an artistic boy from a dysfunctional, poor household who becomes friends with his adventurous next-door neighbor, Leslie (Robb, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). They aren't treated the best in school, and they don't have much to relate to at home, so they find their own ways to entertain themselves through inventions of their own imagination. Not far from their houses, they find an abandoned tree house, which inspires them to create a world of magic that they play in, dubbed Terabithia. They regularly come here to forget their worries, concocting scenarios where they must protect their fortress from the dangerous forest creatures, although the realities of life do threaten to do away with all they've built up.
While I am not overly impressed with the plot structure of the first hour of Bridge to Terabithia, where it plays mostly like a typical kids film, full of bullies, snotty siblings, and parents that just don't understand, it is in the film's fractured narrative in the final half hour that Bridge earns most of its points. I can't really explain too much about it, as I think that being a bit off guard when certain events happen is crucial to the effectiveness of these later scenes. It does reel you in to the world of two very fanciful children and their lives at home, school and play, which is nothing particularly special, but the rug gets pulled out from under their feet, and the film becomes something more interesting. Considering how typically predictable and somewhat artificial much of the movie seems up to this point, I'm actually surprised at how much these scenes stirred up emotions in me, even more so than in many films for adults that deal with similar subject matter regarding loss and coping.
Perhaps it is because I am an adult that I find the more mature themes to be the interesting elements of Bridge to Terabithia, while I remain mostly aloof to the typical scenes involving school life and the challenges of two kids at play. Even the elements of fantasy that are injected, which are shown in a very literal, CGI-laden sense in the film, are not terribly vital, handled better in a film that is even much more adult, Pan's Labyrinth. I think that it really is a film that fosters deeper thinking than most others aimed at the same demographic, and I do believe that the film is respectful in not pandering to children by treating them as too young or emotionally unaware to handle the thoughts about religion, fantasy, and tragedy. The elements that work are enough to recommend this film for open-minded adults who won't mind their children exposed to life's more challenging questions. It isn't as heavy as Pan's Labyrinth, but it is as mature a live-action Disney film for children will probably ever go.
While I don't feel the scenes of the fantasy world are strong, or particularly necessary to show in such vivid detail (If I directed the film, I would have saved all of the CGI fantasy depictions for the final scene exclusively), I think it is one of the better films aimed at the young set to come out in recent years. The film is cast very well, with Hutcherson and Robb among the two most appealing young actors working today -- cute kids that actually can act, imagine that. It is certainly a worthwhile story, and it is rich with symbolism (the kids find themselves running away from the things that they fear. with Jesse, quite literally, running from his a creature that materializes itself to be his normally-disapproving father).
At its roots, the film is about channeling ones anxieties into an expressive medium, which is the impetus for most artists to draw, paint, sculpt, or build. The world of Terabithia isn't just a typical child's fantasy, but the result of years of feeling left out, neglected, abused, and worthless. It's a place that can be anything you want it to be, where you're the king or queen of a world of your own design. The film's themes are all about how kids cope with hardships, allowing viewers to think and to feel something as they watch this simple story with complex issues. By that statement, and indeed, just by having an honest, fully-developed theme itself, it's already light-years ahead of most commercially-packaged, preprogrammed children's fodder produced today.
©2007 Vince Leo