Judge Daniel MacDonald imagined a fantasy world, but it looked a lot like Des Moines, so he never went back.
Our review of Bridge To Terabithia (Blu-Ray), published September 14th, 2007, is also available.
Close your eyes, but keep your mind wide open.
The advertising for Bridge to Terabithia suggested it would be The Chronicles of Narnia-lite, a special effects laden fantasy journey with an "important moral message," and quite possibly a talking lion. Is there something more to be found here than Narnia Redux?
Facts of the Case
Based on the immensely popular book by Katherine Paterson, this is the story of a friendship between two sixth grade outsiders, Jess (Josh Hutcherson, Zathura) and Leslie (AnnaSophia Robb, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). Jess is growing up in a house with four sisters, overworked parents (Robert Patrick, Copland, and Kate Butler), and not enough money for even a new pair of sneakers. Leslie is the new kid in town, and although money isn't a problem, her idiosyncratic personality makes her a target for the scorn of her peers at school. Discovering that they're neighbors, the two band together and find a way to escape their problems, stumbling upon a secluded piece of property where they create a magical world in their imagination: Terabithia.
Through the stunningly realized creatures that inhabit Terabithia, Jess and Leslie work through their troubles with bullies and their home life, developing a profound relationship at the same time.
Bridge to Terabithia starts out pretty rough. The children, both Jess' older sisters and the kids at school, spout awkward dialogue that sounds nothing like how they would actually speak, and the tired archetypes are quickly established. The first time Jess sits down for breakfast with his family, I was worried that I didn't have enough beer in the fridge to make it through the next 90 minutes. Further exasperating matters, much of the dialogue stands out from the rest of the sound mix, not well incorporated with the music and sound effects, and therefore attracting attention to itself. (This is explained in the audio commentary, as having filmed in New Zealand, many of the kids have accents and their lines were re-recorded after filming was concluded. Other scenes just had sound problems with the original dialogue.) Overall, not a promising beginning.
But once the story gets cooking, it becomes a genuinely moving piece of family cinema. This tale of friendship and learning about oneself covers vitally important issues for the young adult with tact and, occasionally, aplomb. Situations in which Jess finds himself—getting teased on the bus, having extremely uncool shoes, being bullied, crushing on a cute teacher, making friends with the new kid—all rang soundly true from back when I was a kid, even if the execution is sometimes problematic. The story is just complex enough, with plotlines to show both Jess and Leslie as multi-faceted characters, but simple enough to be easy to follow. The friendship between Jess and Leslie grows organically, and feels accurately platonic for a sixth grade relationship. Jess' awkwardness when faced with the prospect of being friends with a girl is subtle and amusing.
Despite the melodramatic, and at times cliché, machinations of the plot, Jess' standard reaction is to not react at all, like most twelve- or thirteen-year-old boys would do when faced with so daunting a circumstance as being "in like" with a girl or having to stand up to a bully. His often blank expression seems honest and true, and kudos to director Gabor Csupo (who comes from the animation world, designing characters such as the Rugrats) for trusting that the performance wouldn't seem one-note (it doesn't). The choices he makes freshen up a number of otherwise standard scenes. Leslie's character is required to be much more active, and while not coming across as realistically as Jess, she is a joyous presence on screen, bringing him out of his shell through her relentless optimism.
The level of restraint taken with the special effects sequences in Terabithia is also commendable. Despite the misleading ad campaign, we see relatively little of this magical world that exists in the minds of Jess and Leslie; when we do it's spectacular and exciting, but the focus never comes off the human relationships. This is not really a fantasy movie: it uses fantasy to explore the challenges of growing up, the invented creatures taking on characteristics of their real-life tormentors. No matter how deep the pair get into their secret world, it's always very clear that this is their imagination, and shouldn't be taken as "real."
As can often be the case in family films, the adult characters are largely around to move the story forward and don't fare as well as Jess and Leslie. Robert Patrick imbues his performance with a fascinating level of subtext, making his role more powerful than it otherwise would've been, and Zooey Deschanel (Almost Famous) makes it easy to see why Jess (and every other boy in the class) has a crush on her, but there's little for any of the adult characters to really do. And, fair enough, this is not their story, but in a movie this short I would've liked to see a bit more, especially from Jess' dad. Most egregious are Leslie's parents, who are portrayed as over the top modern hippies, and the first scene we spend with them brings the film to a screeching halt.
Acting-wise, Josh Hutcherson and AnnaSophia Robb put their peers to shame, giving nuanced performances and making us care about their plight. The main bullies tend to overplay their scenes, acting altogether too tough, mean, or clever to be believable, and instead come across as annoying. An exception in the supporting cast is eight-year-old Bailee Madison, who shows a boatload of charisma in her first film performance.
A note of warning: Bridge to Terabithia contains some pretty heavy stuff, so you may want to watch it yourself before screening for your young children. Not that there's anything offensive in it, but the film is not made for all-ages due to mature themes.
From a technical perspective, this is a top-notch presentation. The amazing CGI work by Weta is rendered in stunning detail, blending flawlessly with the real surroundings. Many of the creatures are seen in shadows, in motion, or from a distance, never letting us get a lingering look at their detail, adding to their mystery and perceived realism. The DVD does justice to this fantastic work, with above average fine object and shadow detail. The color palate is intentionally subdued but accurately rendered, and nary a speck of grain can be seen. The audio features an aggressive, enveloping sound design, especially during the fantasy sequences and musical interludes (although the songs and Aaron Zigman's derivative score are rather forgettable). My only complaint is the lack of a DTS track, as Disney is sometimes known to include: the increased timbre would have made a good soundtrack even better.
The featurette, "The Themes of Bridge to Terabithia" contains a number of interviews from educators and author Katherine Paterson about why the book has been so beloved for more than 30 years, and what themes translated onto the screen in the film. It's a good piece that might help start up a conversation with children after the movie's over. I would've liked a bit more from the featurette on the digital effects, as it can only scratch the surface in its six minute running time. A music video with young AnnaSophia Robb shows why she'll be a major acting force in a few years.
The audio commentaries are the most comprehensive features, the first featuring director Gabor Csupo, writer Jeff Stockwell (The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys) and producer Hal Liberman. It's a low-key and chatty listen, with plenty of interesting trivia, everything you would want in a commentary. The second, with the child actors and producer Lauren Levine, is less satisfying, but may draw in a young adult listener who otherwise may never hear a commentary. I did get a chuckle as Josh Hutcherson describes how his friends made fun of him for a scene where he tries on a rope swing for the first time.
It takes some time for the full impact of the movie to sink in, seeming somewhat slight as the credits roll because of the short running time. But as the scenes replay in the mind, Bridge to Terabithia offers a lot to think about, and will likely be treasured by its target audience. It's not a perfect film, but it manages to transcend its "family movie" categorization to deliver a genuinely emotional experience.
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Scales of Justice
• Digital Imagination: Bringing Terabithia to Life
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