|Bridge to Terabithia|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Saturday, 01 September 2007|
Blu-ray high definition helps this modest but well-produced film; it has frequent special effects, which pop into relief with all their details realized, and it was shot on scenic but unspectacular locations in New Zealand (although it’s set in the United States). This is not just a good movie, it borders comfortably on being nearly a great one, certainly one of the best so far in 2007. The kid actors are exceptionally good, particularly Josh Hutcherson, and the story, which begins in a kind of melancholy but light-hearted tone, takes an abrupt turn into very deep seriousness. But the focus on our young hero remains steady, and though there are elements of tragedy, what’s really emphasized is the sad but altogether normal change that young Jesse Aarons must face: death.
Katherine Paterson’s eight-year-old son David became close friends with a neighbor girl his own age. She went on a seaside vacation with her parents—and was struck and killed by a bolt of lightning. Paterson despairingly tried to relate this terrible turn of fate to her confused young son, but couldn’t do it. And so she wrote “The Bridge to Terabithia”—and produced one of the best novels for children of the last half of the 20th century. It won awards and it has become part of the curriculum of many schools. In the extra material co-star Zooey Deschanel reveals that it ws one of her favorite books, which is why she took the role of a teacher here when it was offered.
The supplemental material is very good, but there’s one odd element that’s mostly avoided. The movie was co-written and co-produced by David Paterson (who does appear in some of the featurettes), the son for whom Katherine Paterson wrote the book in the first place. It would have been useful to parents if he’d explained how—or even if—the book had the powerful effect on him that it has had on so many other readers. On the other hand, he has done his mother proud by his work on this film. He doesn’t need to justify himself to anyone, including me.
This was the last movie of cinematographer Michael Chapman, who retired upon completion. His other movies include “Taxi Driver,” “The Front” (both 1976), “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1978), “Raging Bull” (1980), “The Lost Boys” (1987) and “The Fugitive” (1993). If you’re familiar with those films, you’ll recognize how versatile Chapman was, rising to the needs of his directors every time. It’s true here, too; this was Gabor Csupo’s first live-action movie as director (he’d previously worked in animation), and he probably needed the support of such an accomplished professional as Chapman (who, like Csupo, appears briefly in the background). The movie is rich in dark, earth tones; the forests seem cool and wind-swept; the landscapes are broad but inviting. There’s one shot that’s inadvertently almost a joke: Leslie (AnnaSophia Robb) urges Jesse (Hutcherson) to use his imagination and transform the landscape before him into the imaginary world of Terabithia. He does this—but because this was made in New Zealand, the pre-Terabithia landscape is almost as beautiful as the CGI world of Terabithia.
This is another movie born for high-definition video. Much of the film depends on the graceful, understated acting by the whole cast, from oldest to youngest, and the tiny details of their slightly shifting expressions are sensitively captured. The movie spends relatively little time with Terabithia—surprising many who expected a “Narnia”-like spectacle—but the imaginary world is crisply depicted. The nastier denizens of Terabitha are covered in twisted fur or bristle in spikes; the more human are topped with feathers, and one has a bird cage (complete with bird) for a torso. All of this is rendered with great care and attention to detail; Terabithia seems even more real than the actual forest in which our two young heroes have their wonderful—and real—tree house.
The extras include two commentary tracks. The first features director Csupo, co-writer Jeff Stockwell and co-producer Hal Lieberman. They point out easy-to-overlook details such as the Maori children in the background of the school scenes—it WAS shot in New Zealand, after all. They call attention to the “Dark Master,” a Terabithian character whose function is peculiarly vague in the film itself. They praise the cinematography of Michael Chapman—whom everyone evidently calls “Chappie”—who certainly does turn in good work. When the giant from Terabithia giggles, Csupo modestly admits that’s his titter you here. The three men also point out the various elements of foreshadowing (regarding the death in the last third of the film) scattered through the early portions, elements that went right by many viewers, including this one.
The other commentary track is by coproducer Laura Levine and the two young stars, Josh Hutcherson and AnnaSophia Robb. If there’s any justice in the world, in ten years these two will be among the biggest stars in movies. Right now, though, they’re giggling—but very intelligent—teenagers tickled to be included in the commentary track. They say “cool” and “awesome” a lot; Robb even declares something to be “awesomely cool.” They’re endearing and open, thrilled when Levine reveals some of the trivia behind the scenes. The chat, however, isn’t very focused, and Levine has to guide the two youngsters back on track several times. Still, it’s consistently entertaining.
A feature called “Movie Showcase” is included, but seems singularly unnecessary. When selected, it gives you “instant access to the filmmakers’ most cinematic moments that showcase the ultimate in high definition picture and sound.” This may even be true, but only three scenes are shown, one in which Leslie seems to conjure up winds in the forest, Jesse’s first sight of Terabithia, and the end sequence, in which he shows Terabithia to his adorable younger sister. It’s actually easier to access these from Scene Selections.
There’s an unusually thoughtful and worthwhile featurette, “Behind the book: Themes of ‘Bridge to Terabithia’.” Several prominent authorities on children’s literature talk about the book, including librarian Irene Abramson, school teacher Leane C. Marquez, children’s literature professor Nonie Smith, as well as Zooey Deschanel, AnnaSophia Robb and Josh Hutcherson. The prime comments are by Katherine Paterson herself, explaining how her book came to be written. David Paterson is also briefly interviewed.
Another featurette is “Digital Imagination: Bringing Terabithia to Life.” Director Csubo is interviewed; Hutcherson is tremendously excited that the effects are being done by Peter Jackson’s WETA, since he loved the “Lord of the Rings” movies and “Narnia.” Richard Taylor and Dan Lemmon from WETA are also interviewed. Like the other featurette, this is unusually well done, and fascinating throughout.
“The Bridge to Terabithia” is an ideal film for parents to watch with their children, but parents are strongly urged to look at the film first by themselves, including checking out the “Behind the Book” featurette. This movie is very powerful, but also extremely worthwhile. Do not overlook this one.