By now you’ve probably heard that, despite some trailers and advertising before the theatrical run, Bridge to Terabithia is not a fantasy movie along the lines of The Chronicles of Narnia. Hopefully you’ve also heard that while it isn’t another junior Lord of the Rings, it is perfect for a family looking for a thoughtful movie about friendship and imagination.
Family movies that deal realistically with friendship, imagination, isolation, and childhood dynamics are few and far between. When it does happen, they often go overboard to a crushing realistic style that results in something that is an ordeal to sit through. Bridge to Terabithia, the movie adaptation of the 1978 Newbery Medal winning young-adult book by Katherine Paterson, strikes the right balance between the two extremes.
Holding pretty close to the book’s plot outline, fifth-grader Jesse Aarons (Josh Hutcherson) draws and runs to escape the world where he feels like an outcast. He is the only boy among five children, his father (Robert Patrick) struggles to keep the family’s financial head above water and has no time for the seemingly unproductive activities his son pursues, and the school bullies pick on him for being poor, distracted, and artistic. Jesse’s only allies are his younger sister May Belle (the cute as a button Bailee Madison) who adores him even as he shuns her company and his music teacher Miss Edmunds (Zooey Deschanel) who encourages his artistic side.
Jesse seems destined for a childhood as an outsider until the arrival of new kid Leslie (AnnaSophia Robb.) She is Jesse’s opposite in many ways but her independent attitude and style also put her on the outs at school and she recognizes him as a kindred spirit. This is the kind of movie that can make you think about “kindred spirits” without throwing up. The two become friends and Leslie pushes Jesse to use his imagination to create a land in the woods near their houses, which they dub “Terabithia.”
The scenes in Terabithia, where Jesse and Leslie briefly battle creatures which echo their struggles at school and home, is the movie’s only fantasy element. The rest is firmly rooted in the reality of school yard and home-life troubles, familiar to anyone who didn’t quite fit in during these formative years. Jesse’s relationship with Leslie, not a romance but a true friendship, gives him confidence to do what he enjoys while facing down some of the roadblocks in his life.
Director Gabor Csupo, a longtime animator on “The Simpsons” and “Rugrats”, helms a feature length movie for the first time. It’s almost amazing since the strength of the film is not in the special effects (although the sequences are important to the film, the effects themselves are cheesy) but in the performances and relationships. Every character is given at least a few layers. The father is not just a tyrant, but a loving man who is trying to be practical about what is important, the school bullies and teachers have their own problems, and Jesse acts selfishly at times despite all that Leslie has done for him. The realism in these characters overshadows the occasional poorly rendered hawk creature in Terabithia.
Also startling in a family movie in 2007 is the willingness to handle religious themes in an even handed way. Jesse and Leslie talk about God, Jesus, the afterlife, and joy in a searching and open minded way. Leslie points out that she thinks that Jesus’ story is “beautiful” but Jesse, who “has to” believe it, doesn’t see the beauty in it. The dialogue, spoken by strong young actors like Hutcherson and Robb is enlightening no matter what the age of the viewer.
For those looking for sword fights, mythical creatures, and grand themes of revenge Bridge to Terabithia will seem tame, even boring. But for every movie advertised as being about “friendship” and “imagination” this is one that actually seems to understand what the words mean. Like the book, the movie expects that a well told story about self-expression, being yourself, and the joy of being with someone who both likes and challenges you is better than another CGI-created flying horse.
Further cementing Bridge to Terabithia’s differences with big budget fantasy films is the rather modest selection of extras provided on the DVD. The disc itself is crisp and sharp and provides all of the standard features related to sound, language and subtitles, but there are no deleted scenes, no art galleries, no extended documentaries showing every jot and tittle of the production process.
There are, however, two commentaries. One is provided by director Gabor Csupo, writer Jeff Stockwell, and producer Hal Lieberman. This commentary starts out a little slowly, but stick with it, it’s chocked full of interesting tidbits about both the film and the process of transferring the book to screen. None of the participants dominates or comes across in a bored or rote manner. It sounds like three colleagues at ease with each other. They talk about the New Zealand locations that resulted in all of the children besides the four leads (Jesse, Leslie, May Belle, Janice) having to have their voices dubbed with American actors. Also, the fact that the location of the story is set for “Anywhere, USA” feel, so it would have a more universal appeal (at least to American audiences.)
The second commentary is provided by actors Josh Hutcherson and AnnaSophia Robb along with producer Lauren Levine. The funniest part of this commentary is Hutcherson’s voice change since the movie wrapped. It’s about two octaves deeper, making it seem like a completely different person. Unfortunately, the commentary suffers from a common problem with commentaries by young actors. There is too much of the “remember, that guy, he was really cool” and “oh, it was great when we went there” comments and not enough about what went into making the movie.
In addition to the commentary are two featurettes. The first, “Behind the Book: The Themes of Bridge to Terabithia,” doesn’t have any making-of characteristics. As the name implies it talks about the themes that Katherine Paterson covered in the book (and were covered again in the movie.) The talking heads are primarily Paterson herself, her son, a few of the film’s stars, and a bunch of teachers. It’s a good introduction to the book, but since the movie is such a faithful adaptation the comments are pretty redundant to the movie itself. The fact that the book is about friendship and being yourself is made crystal clear by the movie, you don’t need some fourth grade teacher explaining it to you.
The second featurette is “Digital Imagination: Bringing Terabithia to Life.” That’s a pretty literal title, as it only covers the Terabithian creature creation and no other part of the movie making process. The one interesting part is how the faces of the actors who played the bullies were used to help create the facial structure and other characteristics of some of the creatures. There isn’t much too it, though, and the extra only lasts a few minutes.
The final extra is another example of one of the most annoying trends in kid’s movies these days. AnnaSophia Robb sings “Keep Your Mind Wide Open” on the film’s soundtrack and the music video is included. Robb is a wonderful actress and is so good in the role of Leslie but she can’t sing. I don’t mean she isn’t a great singer, she’s not even a good singer. She’s better than me, but I’m pretty lousy and she’s only slightly better and that’s with a lot of technical help. Not every person under the age of 16 who stars in a Disney movie needs to be pushed towards a singing career.
As is the case with many good movies that don’t have particularly strong DVD extras, it’s really the movie itself that is the prime attraction. Any family collection would benefit from this film and the solid, if not spectacular, DVD presentation. Perhaps just a little fiber to go with the sugar and spice in most kid’s movies.