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Bridge to Terabithia (2007) Print E-mail
Friday, 16 February 2007
Disney’s advertising, both print and television, for “Bridge to Terabithia” makes the movie look like the “Narnia” films: kids wind up in a fantasy world full of weird creatures and magic.

That’s unfair to this remarkable movie, one of the most moving films I’ve seen in years, and it’s also misleading. But don’t think this is a mere tearjerker or sentimental; this is a tough, honest movie about childhood, and should be seen by any kid old enough to deal with the issue the film presents so well and so honestly. I should not state what that issue is; it’s a spoiler if there ever was one. But as a friend noted after the screening, this is “Old Yeller” for a new generation—and there isn’t a dog in sight.

The novel by Katherine Patterson won the prestigious Newbery Medal in 1978, and an hour-long TV adaptation appeared in 1985. The book is often used in schools, and has been a top seller ever since it was published. But I went into the theater not knowing a thing about it, and expecting the fantasy-world adventure the trailers seem to offer. Instead, it’s a deeply compassionate and healing film about the most serious issue a child—or an adult—can face.

Jesse Aarons (Josh Hutcherson of “RV”) is about 11, living in the country with his struggling father (Robert Patrick), mother, and four sisters, three older, one, May Belle (Bailee Madison), younger. His older sisters tease him and he regards May Belle as a pest. It’s the start of a school year, and he’s been grimly practicing running. When he returns to school, he’s immediately targeted by familiar bullies and treated unfairly by one teacher, though another, arts teacher Ms. Edmonds (Zooey Deschanel), is instantly the target of Jesse’s first crush. She’s friendly, outgoing, knows a lot of good songs (accompanying herself on a guitar); she also recognizes that Jesse is a talented artist himself. He carries about a sketch book which he frequently adds to.

Jesse doesn’t take much notice at first of new student Leslie Burke (AnnaSophia Robb), a blonde his age who has short hair and wears somewhat odd clothes. She attracts the attention of a few bullies herself, particularly hefty eighth grader Janice (Lauren Clinton). Then there’s the big race which Jesse has been preparing for. The two bullies who target him are in the lineup—and to everyone’s surprise, so is Leslie. And she wins, barely beating Jesse.
Against himself, Jesse is drawn to her, particularly when he finds that her parents have moved into the only house near the Aarons place. She’s an only child, and her parents are a little aloof, rather intellectual. Jesse’s own father, Jack (Robert Patrick), works long hours; their family is not well off. Jesse even has to wear pink sneakers handed down from the older sisters.

He and Leslie begin palling around after school. He’s impressed by the essay on SCUBA diving she reads before a class—and even more impressed when he learns she’s never done that at all; it all came out of her lively imagination. In the woods, they find a rope over a stream that’s already pretty easy to cross, but Leslie declares it their pathway to an imaginary world, Terabithia, and they always get there by swinging on the rope.

Jesse is amazed and thrilled by the idea of Terabithia; he’s never been encouraged to use his imagination before, and finds the idea of a fantasy world where he and Leslie are great heroes, even royalty, to be liberating and exciting. The movie shows us glimpses, but little more, of Terabithia—shadowy figures ducking behind trees, giant legs topped by who-knows-what. Jesse also imagines he can now leap about in trees like a monkey.

Leslie squares off against Janice, offscreen, leading to a surprise for Jesse and Janice, who may bully littler kids, but who’s something of a sad case herself. When Ms. Edmonds invites Jesse to accompany her to a museum in a nearby town, he’s secretly pleased not to invite Leslie along.

But something happens.

Working from a sensitive, good-humored script by Jeff Stockwell and David Paterson, Hungarian-born Gabor Csupo makes the transition from animation to live-action smoothly and well. He’s mostly worked on things like the feature movies of The Wild Thornberrys and the Rugrats, plus directing many episodes of “The Simpsons.” He doesn’t overreach himself with “Terabithia,” and doesn’t allow the fantasy world to intrude overmuch on the main, basically realistic, story. The Terabithian elements, which include tiny flying fairies, and spiky woodsland creatures with some of the traits of those bullies at school, are threaded into the scenes of Leslie and Jesse having fun in the woods. It’s a sophisticated, sympathetic treatment of the imaginative powers of children, which have gotten short shrift in recent movies. You have to go back as far “The Boy with Green Hair” and “The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.” to find the like, but even then, “Terabithia” is different. Those movies plunged their kids wholly into a fantasy world (even if briefly, in “Green Hair”); “Terabithia” keeps the boundaries clear.

All of the kid actors, including very young Bailee Madison as May Belle, are extremely good, completely unforced and natural. Furthermore, the screenplay differentiates among the characters subtly and with skill—yes, Jesse has three older sisters, but they’re not simply the same girl three times; they’re individuals with their own traits, even though they’re definitely not central characters.

It’s a little surprising to find tough guy Robert Patrick (“Terminator 2,” “The X-Files”) as the father, but it’s also shrewd casting. The father isn’t a bad guy, but he’s also not very warm to his son, and expects inappropriate things from the boy. This, however, is mostly because he has to put in such long hours at his job. Patrick doesn’t seek audience sympathy or understanding—and partly because he doesn’t, he receives it naturally.

Zooey Deschanel is exactly the kind of teacher a fifth-grade boy would fall for. She’s distinctive, sympathetic and still a bit girlish herself. We understand why Jesse would consciously leave Leslie behind when he’s invited to the museum; he doesn’t want to share Ms. Edmonds with anyone, not even his best friend.

But the movie stands or falls with the two central performances, and it is sturdily supported by Hutcherson and Robb. He was very good in “Zathura” and “RV,” giving in both better performances than maybe the movies deserved. He’s also good here, just odd enough to make believable the bullies’ tauntings; he’s also convincing as a budding artist. He has a temper (he gets angry at May Belle when she adds a drawing to his sketch book), but he’s basically a good kid. He’s “our” kid—the central character—and he is up to this task.

AnnaSophia Robb is perfectly cast as the tomboyish Leslie. She was one of the bratty kids in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” and appeared in “Because of Winn-Dixie.” She looks like a young Doris Day, with a slightly freckled face and blonde hair. Her performance is as solid as Hutcherson’s, and she immensely likeable.

So is the movie. Kids should see this film; they’ll cry near the end—I sure did—but it’s not exploitative of kids’ feelings, it doesn’t assault them, either. But just as “Bambi” and “Old Yeller” were honest about the issues they raise, so is “Bridge to Terabithia.” I suspect this isn’t going to do all that well in theaters, but just as the book is one of the favorites of thousands of children all over the country, I suspect the eventual DVD will be among the favorite movies of many children.

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