Bridge to Terabithia (2007)

23 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Bridge to Terabithia” had been marketed as a  “Harry Potter”/”Narnia” clone with a magical world and a promise of fantastic adventure. This is most puzzling to those who were/are fans of the popular novel of the same name (it’s assigned reading in most grade schools), which is said to be the film’s predecessor. But could you really tell that from the film’s trailers, TV spots, or even its poster?

I’ve read the book—the 1977 Newbery Award winning children’s book by Katherine Paterson. It’s a wonderful read about acceptance, imagination, and friendship—not monsters, action, and magic. “Bridge to Terabithia” is co-written (with Jeff Stockwell) by Katherine Paterson’s son David, so how could it be that “Bridge to Terabithia” has transformed into a low-rent “Narnia?” The answer: it hasn’t. Not at all. This film adaptation of “Bridge to Terabithia” is a wonderful film, marketed in such a deceptive way that those who know the film only by its marketing will be as puzzled as readers of the book, if not more puzzled.

“Bridge to Terabithia” is one of the best live-action family films in the past ten years. It’s such a rich and meaningful movie that keeps the same themes of acceptance, imagination, and friendship brought upon by the original book. How it was marketed the way it was is dishonorable, but I guess they had to get the kids to the box office by showcasing the film’s special effects. But while there are elements of fantasy (a central action sequence takes place), they exist to serve and support the story. There’s far more than what you see in the film’s trailer.

The story features Jess Aarons (Josh Hutcherson), a lonely boy from a poor farming family. Jess loves to draw and can draw very well, though his parents don’t support his talent. At school, he takes a great deal of bullying and tries to prove himself worthy on the first day of school, by competing in a recess running race. But he comes in second, next to Leslie Burke (AnnaSophia Robb), the new girl in class.

Despite having an earnest, energetic presence, Leslie is an outsider too. Her parents are authors working on their new book, she’s as creative as Jess (only through writing and creating stories), and her family doesn’t own a TV set, which of course makes her a subject of ridicule by the other kids. At first, Jess is as disrespectful toward her as the other kids. But their similar talents of creativity—his drawings and her writing—help form a friendship between the two. They find an old swinging rope that they use to go to the land across the nearby river, where they create the imaginary world of Terabithia, where squirrels are furry beasts, birds are giant vultures, and trees are trolls. Every day, they swing across the rope into Terabithia and come up with new adventures.

Sure, that stuff isn’t in the original book, nor is the central action sequence in which Jess and Leslie fight these figures all at once. But the element of imagination was present and is upgraded for this film adaptation. Since they don’t hurt the story at all and continue to support the story’s themes, it’s acceptable. Even that action sequence serves a purpose—without giving too much away, it serves as a metaphor for facing fears and earning respect. Terabithia is an example of using imagination to escape everyday life—the world of neglectful parents, strict teachers, and harsh school bullies. Some of these creatures that Jess and Leslie create in their mind are based on some of these people—for example, the squirrel monster is based upon one of the bullies.

And I should also note how good the CGI looks. It isn’t used often, but when it appears, it’s used very well.

The family aspect of “Bridge to Terabithia” is very effective, particularly with Jess’ home life. He comes from a farming family and his family can’t afford much. So since money is an important value in his family’s life, his father is strict about his son keeping with the program and getting his head out of the clouds. The father doesn’t approve of Jess’ artistic ability, even though Jess tries to impress him. These scenes between Jess and his father are powerful, and the father isn’t a one-dimensional caricature. He does care about his son, and only wants what he thinks is best for him (and the rest of the family).

Josh Hutcherson and AnnaSophia Robb both do incredible jobs and have the charismatic screen presence and chemistry to succeed in playing these roles. You really buy them as great friends and individually troubled kids. The supporting cast is excellent—Robert Patrick delivers a strong performance as Jess’ strict (but not uncaring) father, Zooey Deschanel is lively as Jess’ music teacher whom Jess has a small crush on, and Bailee Madison is good as Jess’ adorable little sister May Belle. Also of note is Lauren Clinton, who portrays a convincing bully with a troubling family life. (The other bullies are one-dimensional.)

There’s something I want to mention before I get to the main conflict that takes up the final act of the movie. The music, composed by Aaron Zigman, is absolutely amazing—particularly the central music score that opens and closes the film. It’s memorable, it’s catchy, and it’s magical. I was humming this tune just a few minutes after I saw the film.

One very important part of the original book is a tragic accident. Without saying too much about it, because the less said the better (if you haven’t read the book), this movie doesn’t shy away from it to keep its friendliness. It tells this story straight and shows just how these characters deal with it. It really hit me hard. Again, without giving too much away, the back half of this movie is extraordinary in the way these people deal with this ordeal. If at first you feel denial after a death in your life, it helps to talk about it and share your feelings.

“Bridge to Terabithia” is grounded more into reality than into fantasy, despite what the marketing suggests. I guess they couldn’t find a more effective way to advertise the film and get kids invested, so they went with a showcase of the special effects that are only part of the characters’ imagination. Whoever made this decision was not playing fair with their own movie. This is a great family movie that will appeal to both kids and adults. The acting is great, the themes are well-presented, the screenplay is great, and the drama is legitimate. It’s a worthy adaptation to a wonderful book, made into a wonderful movie.

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