MOVIE Review of the Day: Bridge to Terabithia
Here’s how it all played out. I go to my e-mail one day to find a piece of correspondence that, at first glance, appears to be spam for Fandango. You know. That pre-ordered ticket service that advertises with multiple talking paper bags. So I delete said suspected spam, move on, then my brain does a quick double take. Wait a minute. Did that spam just have the letters HMOCL in its subject line? A quick double check and lo and behold I’ve been sent a free theater ticket by HMOCL #26 (ten points if you can name him). To what end? My sweet admirer asked that I see Bridge to Terabithia and review it on this here bloggy thingy. Never one to pass up free stuff (with the possible exception of free mouthwash, ‘cause that’s nasty) I decided to do exactly that…. approximately a month after he sent me the tickets. No one ever claimed I was quick. And even after I saw the film I needed at least a week and a half to digest it (i.e. I felt lazy and didn’t write when I should have). Now I’ve masticated, digested, chewed my cud, redigested (ew), and I think I’m ready to give this film its full due long after anyone cares anymore. Which is just another way of saying, if you haven’t checked out the Horn Book reviewer Martha V. Parravano’s take on this film, you may wish to do so. If you absolutely must read only one review of Bridge to Terabithia, read that one.
First and foremost, if you wish for any plot points in this movie (particularly of the “film’s ending” variety) to remain unknown to you, don’t read me. Not only am I filling this pup with spoilers, I intend to dance a tarantella on the remains of any mystery that might surround Terabithia’s “surprise”. Got that? Gone? Cool. Cause Leslie Burke totally dies in this film and that’s the only thing I knew about the book growing up. For years I eschewed any books that might be deemed “depressing” for fear that they might… I dunno… depress me. So fare thee well, Jacob Have I Loved. Toodle-oo, Chocolate War. And don’t you hold that Bridge to Terabithia too close to me there. You don’t know where it’s been! It wasn’t until I hit the grand old age of 20 or so that I finally picked up the dreaded tome and read it through. Such a great book. Containing one of the best first sentences in children’s literature (“Ba-room, ba-room, ba-room, baripity, baripity, baripity, baripity—Good.”) this is one of those American classics you can enjoy even as you weep. It is also, I might add, one of the top two Let’s Introduce Kids to the Concept of Death children’s novels out there. The other, you may have guessed, is Charlotte’s Web which was ALSO filmed by Walden Media not too long ago. My guess is that if you see any Disney employees sniffing around My Brother Sam Is Dead or Lois Lowry’s A Summer to Die, don’t act surprised.
Anywho, I liked the book but since I didn’t love it intensely as a child, I could remain separated from it and see whether or not this film improved on the original story or not. After sitting through fifteen or sixteen trailers for other upcoming children’s movies (the fact that Mimzy is not a horror film is still baffling to me) off we went. I was watching Bridge to Terabithia in a theater with about ten other people on a Tuesday afternoon around 4:45. There is no better way to fly.
First and foremost, I’d just like to say that I liked it. And I really didn’t expect to either. I’ve a very low tolerance for poorly made films of any type and children’s features are no exception. I wasn’t prepped to like it much either. I’d had a library patron come up to me a couple days earlier lamenting at length the various problems she saw in the film. On the other hand, at the ALA Conference in Seattle some of my Newbery colleagues saw a preview of the movie and gave it a thumbs up. Who to believe? As it happens, I’m standing with my fellow colleagues. This was a strong feature that won you over even when it faltered. David Paterson, son of the author and the kid who inspired the character of Jesse Aarons dead-best-female-friendwise, did his job to the best of his abilities.
Now the greatest fear of any fan of the book has always been how effectively Terabithia’s able to switch between the real and the fantastical. At best, I was hoping for a kind of Heavenly Creatures shift, but Paterson’s even subtler than that. The lamentable movie trailer that made the film appear to be all fight scenes alongside very little reality was easy to forget in the face of Paterson’s slow introduction to all things mystical. The first time Jesse sees Leslie read a work of her own in class, her words are so vivid to him that he can see little bubbles when she describes the experience of snorkeling. When I saw this I was poised to believe that the film might make it seem as if Leslie has some kind of hypnotic power over Jesse, but that’s not really the case. Imagination in both its practical (writing and painting) and otherworldly (fantasy world) incarnations is honored here. What Jesse and Leslie do is no more than play a kind of Dungeons and Dragons game without hard and fast rules (or twelve-sided dice for that matter). Reviewer Martha V. Parravano did criticize the film for making Terabithia such a menacing place to escape to, but I think that was the whole point. It’s a cathartic area where the two kids can fight the demons they encounter in school. The bully of a girl that gets them both in trouble becomes a monstrous troll. The annoying boys are creepy squirrel-like creatures. Some of this is a bit heavy-handed, as when Jesse is “rescued” by the troll after her realistic counterpart has been helped by Leslie at school. Still, I don’t think kids are being patronized to here.
I had some mixed feelings on the casting of the children. No objections to Josh Hutcherson who played Jesse Aarons, mind you. Looking at his film career (which is extensive, to say the least), you can see that this was a far subtler part than the standard bullies and random kids he’s had to play in the past. What I liked about Josh was that when he delivered a line, you didn’t get the sense that it was something written down that he’d memorized and was now reciting. Hutcherson’s a natural actor who knows how to take on a part fully. I wish the same could have been said about his co-star AnnaSophia Robb. She’s just as much an acting veteran as Josh, but the girl needs to take a page or two out of his book. Where Josh would deliver a line like it just occurred to him on the spot, AnnaSophia placed delicate pauses after each one of her sentences. She’s great at enunciation, no question, but you never felt attached to her or her character. I blame the casting to some extent here, of course. The idea is that Leslie and Jesse are friends occurs in part because none of the other kids in school want to be their friends. But the minute AnnaSophia walks into her new classroom, it’s impossible to suspend your disbelief. THAT girl can’t make friends? Not only is she the loveliest creature you ever did see but her clothes are so incredibly cool that it’s all you can do to believe that children wouldn’t swarm around her the minute she so much as breathed near them. Someone a little more butch and a little less delicate could have possibly convinced viewers to care for Leslie and her death, but AnnaSophia was not that girl. Almost making up for her, though, was Lauren Clinton as the bully Janice Avery. I couldn’t get enough of that girl. It’s a singularly unlovely part and Lauren embraces Janice’s ugliness head-on without ever disintegrating into caricature. But the killing blow to the film was almost struck by the casting of Bailee Madison as Jesse’s little sister. I’ve a very low tolerance for, what I like to call, the Raven Symone effect (Cosby Show, anyone?). There is cute and then there’s trying too hard. Bailee tries to hard and ends up unlikable by the story’s end. Sorry guys. I wasn’t buying her in any of her scenes.
Now I may not have approved of all the kids, but the adults in this movie were spot-on time and time again. Robert Patrick, who will never entirely escape the shadow of his performance in Terminator 2, plays Jesse’s father Jack Aarons in this film. I had the mixed-blessing of having seen Mr. Patrick in a truly awful piece of dribbly dreck entitled The Marine not two nights before seeing Terabithia in the theater. After that bit of folderol it was a relief to see that this fellow had to ability to give his character a decent amount of depth. One of the complaints the anti-Terabithia movie patron I encountered was that it seemed awful how Jesse’s father was so cruel to him. I didn’t see it that way. Obviously Mr. Aarons sees the world a certain way and he’s hard on his only son because life has been hard on him. I thought the casting of Zooey Deschanel, aside from fulfilling every schoolboy’s dream of having her as a teacher, was slightly inspired as well. We don’t really have an equivalent hippie actress in this day and age to play the part of Ms. Edmonds, but we do have some pretty down-to-earth women that have already proven they can sing well enough to pull of the old Music Teacher role. And Deschanel proved in the movie Elf that she had singing chops galore, so it’s nice to see her display them loud and proud. Finally, I don’t think enough credit’s gone to actress Jen Wolfe for her turn as teacher Mrs. Myers. Playing a hard-ass prof tends to be a fairly unforgiving role, but Ms. Wolfe imbues her character with such emotion that when she tells Jen about her dead husband you suddenly get a brief flash of a glimpse into her entire persona outside of school. Few actors do so much with full speeches, let alone the random sentence here and there.
I’ve also never seen a contemporary movie so steeped in 1970s imagery. As Terabithia was published in 1977, it wouldn’t have been inconceivable to set the film during that time period. As it stood, however, the fashions and kids were definitely Millennial, while the cinematography could only be called “classic”. It felt 70s, and I tried to pinpoint why. The beautiful tracking shots from overhead of sunlit fields… yeah, you don’t see much of that today. And maybe the school itself where the kids fight their mini battles is in desperate need of some updates in technology, but that’s true in a lot of places. Then it hit me. As far as I could tell, and with very few exceptions, the land of Terabithia wasn’t a set. These kids were constantly standing with real sunlight hitting their features and real pine needles beneath their feet. I’ve spent so much time watching children and fantasy films where everything takes place on a big old soundstage that I’d forgotten how wonderful pure unadulterated nature could be. Compare Terabithia’s woods to the forest in the first Harry Potter movie. There is simply no comparison. You believe that evil creatures might lurk in nature in one film, and in the other you wonder why anyone would act scared when surrounded by trees made of rubber. The CGI is what it is. You either like it or you don’t, but certainly the outdoor feeling of the film counters any artificiality that usually comes with prolific special effects.
So did I cry when Leslie died? Buckets. Not because Leslie was dead so much, though. I couldn’t really care less about her, but the people who cared for her were so interesting that seeing them hurt made me feel awful. This all goes back to what I was saying about actor Josh Hutcherson. There’s a moment between him and his father at the end where Jesse is blaming himself for Leslie’s death and speculating that since she wasn’t baptized maybe she’d go to hell. If you don’t choke up just a little when Robert Patrick says that he doesn’t believe that “God would send that little girl to Hell”, you are made of stone. STONE!
It won’t be for everyone, mind you. The announcement of Leslie’s sudden death is so out of the blue (and natural) that I actually heard small children gasping around me. But I’ve seen plenty of awful family dramas in my day and this is not one of them. I’d have tweaked something here and toyed with something else there, but for the most part I found this a strong collective effort. The parts that were added felt like a natural extension of the book. I definitely would have done away with the horrific pop songs that will date in approximately two years or less. There should be a law passed that forbids popular singers from getting their works embedded in otherwise perfectly good children’s movies. But all that aside, I do feel it’s worth your time and dolaros to give this flick a whirl. You’ll never find a movie that replicates the feel of a story in exactly the same way the original book did, but some come pretty darn close. The second best page to screen adaptation of a Newbery Award winning book there is.