Directed by: Gabor Csupo
Written by: Jeff Stockwell & David Patterson, based on the novel by Katherine Paterson
Starring: Josh Hutcherson, AnnaSophia Robb, Robert Patrick, Zooey Deschanel
Color, 96 minutes
Tuesday night at my house has been deemed "family movie night," and it's usually the same old thing. We'll rent the newest kids flick, our son will be mildly entertained, and my wife and I will go through the motions. During most of these excursions I make enough sarcastic comments to result in a lap full of popcorn (due to my son's impeccable aim) and an ample amount of bruising around my ribs (due to my wife's bony elbow), but this Tuesday was different. We picked up Bridge to Terabithia, a film that we had already seen earlier this year at the multiplex. At the end of each viewing of this film, I've noticed the lack of popcorn to clean up and bruises to tend to. I still maintain that I included my fair share of snide observations, but they became fewer and fewer as the film would progress. The reason is simple: for most of its running time, Terabithia is a pleasant, imaginative, even intelligent family film, and then it pulls the rug out. It goes to a deep, dark, resonant place that most conventional films would not even begin to approach. It's being sold as a Narnia/Harry Potter/Lord of the Rings knockoff, but I can assure you, it is far from that. It is nothing less than the Million Dollar Baby of family films.
Jesse Aarons (Josh Hutcherson) is a typical tween. He enjoys running, drawing, and crushing on his music teacher (Zooey Deschanel). He has four sisters who constantly rag on him, and his parents aren't exactly the most financially inclined. On his first day of school, Jesse is searching endlessly for his ratty old sneakers, and then is heartbroken to find that his mother has thrown them away. With no option but to wear a pair of hand me downs, Jesse grabs a black magic marker to cover up the pink Adidas stripes. He does his chores, catches up with the bus, and heads to school with the only hopeful thought in his mind being of winning "the big race." Oh, how his dreams are shattered when he finishes second, losing to Leslie Burke (AnnaSophia Robb), his new neighbor. This is bad news for Jesse, because whatever tiny bit of "coolness" that wasn't ruined by wearing pink shoes has now been completely obliterated. To lose to a girl is bad enough for his credibility, but to lose to the new girl is simply earth shattering. Leslie's having her own trouble, not only is adjusting to her new environment causing difficulties, kids are constantly picking on her because she has a bit of an overactive imagination and her family has decided not to own a television. Kids can be so cruel, I know. As time passes, however, these two outcasts slowly form a friendship.
In the woods that run behind their homes, they find a refuge away from the trials of the everyday where their imaginations can run wild. They fix up a ramshackle old treehouse, and invent a magical kingdom called Terabithia, filled with fantastical creatures made up of the demeanors of school bullies, where they can be whatever they want. It's kind of like Heavenly Creatures with preteen sexual tension taking the place of lesbian subtext. Here they carve out new lives. They find an understanding and a bond between each other that is too strong to be broken by their differences in class. They are free to be children, and free to experience all of the innocence and imagination that youth should hold. Unfortunately, the real world catches up to them and in a masterfully handled third act, fantasy and youthful ignorance clash with the harshness and unrelenting horror of life.
For all the fun I may poke at it, I truly respected this film. Sure, I have my complaints. I mean, let's face it, if I had Zooey Deshanel for a music teacher and we got to sing Steve Earle tunes instead of the entire Disney repertoire, I would, undoubtedly, have fonder memories of grade school, but I wasn't as lucky. The teeny bop soundtrack is cutesy and it threatens to be a little overbearing at times, but that tends to come with the territory. These are minor quibbles anyways, and the meat of the film is in its extremely sensitive material. Director Gabor Csupo, coming from animation (he's responsible for the God-awful Rugrats), does a commendable job. He never lets the special effects take center stage, which is a smart move. The characters and situations are mature enough to compel an audience, and he knows it. As his cinematographer, Csupo has chosen the great Michael Chapman, who's responsible for lensing such warm hearted pictures as Taxi Driver, Hardcore, and Raging Bull, as well as one of my personal favorites, The Last Waltz (had to get that in there). Chapman brings the magic to life, shooting the film in warm, earthy tones that provide just the right amount of foreshadowing. Csupo also manages to get a big boost from screenwriters Jeff Stockwell and David Patterson, who obviously know their way around such delicate proceedings. They should; Patterson is the son of Katherine, the author of the popular novel on which the film is based. David's real life experiences were the inspiration for the story, and he infuses all that heart and tragedy into the film.
Even with all of this goodness intact, the film still wouldn't work without solid performers in the two leading roles. Thankfully, Hutcherson and Robb are fantastic. They're able to convey the awkwardness of childhood without overdoing it the way most films do. More than that, though, they have a real chemistry together and you could believe that these two have been friends for some time. They manage to draw in even the most hardened of audience members (me), and really cause a genuine sense of wonder and excitement. It's enjoyable to watch and you can tell that there is some real talent coming up in the world, and Hutcherson's exchanges with his father (a pitch perfect Robert Patrick) are especially touching. When the Harry Potter crap has had its run, and Daniel Radcliffe is desperately searching for another Peter Shaffer production to save the day, Hutcherson and Robb will still be making quality films. Bet on it.
This is the third production to come from the collaboration of Disney and Walden Media. The first (Holes) was lame, their second (Narnia) was a tad better, but harder to swallow because it reveled in its religious symbolism. Terabithia is a giant leap forward. It's mature, graceful, and literate, with much to say about the value of imagination, and it gets bonus points for taking the time to include one of the most intelligent discussions of Christianity in recent years (Ingmar Bergman himself would applaud). Maybe I'm a sucker, but I was won over by this little powerhouse. I think you will be as well.