Bridge to Terabithia:
I remember back in the year 2007 when today’s film came out. This was right before superhero movies and Young Adult adaptations were dominating the box office. So what was in then? Family fantasy flicks of course! This was at the very height of Pottermania – where all of a sudden adventure novels were what was in. Studios were greenlighting loads of adaptations in the hopes of replicating the success of both Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. The Golden Compass, City of Ember, Eragon, The Dark is Rising, Darren Shan and of course the more successful Chronicles of Narnia were among those. That last one is important, as that was produced by Walden Media. And Walden Media made the weird choice to promote this film as a Narnia clone. This film was advertised as a fantasy adventure – which a good amount of people in the crew were not happy with. But it fooled me and got me into the cinema anyway. I didn’t have much of a reaction to the film at the time and I only remembered it once I caught a review by The Nostalgia Critic. But let’s jump right in anyway.
As I said, this is not a Narnia-esque adventure. This is actually a coming of age story about a young boy called Jess Aarons (played by a pre-Hunger Games Josh Hutcherson) in a small American town. He’s the middle sibling of five children and their family doesn’t have a lot of money. Likewise his school is a rather stifling environment. The only escapes he has from the dullness of his life are his passion for art and the positive influences of his music teacher Miss Edmunds (played by a pre-New Girl Zooey Deschanel). Things change when a new girl moves in next door to him. Leslie Burke (played by a pre-The Carrie Diaries AnnaSophia Robb) is a pretty weird girl. But she has a great imagination and encourages Jess’s creativity. Together the two of them decide to imagine that they are king and queen of an imaginary magical kingdom – called Terabithia – to escape from the pressures of their normal lives.
I’m going to start off by saying I haven’t read the book. We did read a few extracts of it in school back in the day – but most of what I know about it I’ve read second hand. There’s always a lot of issues with adapting a book to a film, and the main issue is usually trying to convey a lot of a book’s themes in a visual manner – without being too on-the-nose. From what I gather, there are a few things in the book that the film kind of misses. For example in the book a big part of Jess’s life is that his school is all about conformity. He and Leslie click because the two of them don’t conform to the school’s standards. The school is all about study and discipline, meaning that they create Terabithia as a way to express their creativity in a way they don’t get to at school. That’s not really played up in the film and I think it’s a bit of a missed opportunity. They do acknowledge that some kids think Leslie’s odd because her parents don’t have a TV and that Jess’s only friend seems to be his younger sister Maybelle. But it seems more like an odd quirk than an actual character motivation. I think the film could have stood to maybe make the town seem duller or plainer, going down the Wizard of Oz route – to help show that feeling of escapism. But when the surroundings are bathed in sunlight and beautifully framed, there kinda doesn’t feel like much of a reason for Jess and Leslie to create Terabithia.
Terabithia itself I feel is another missed opportunity in this movie. For example we really don’t see too much of it. I’m impressed that the trailers managed to fool people into thinking this was a straight fantasy movie – because there isn’t really a lot of it here. I look to a more cynical and much darker escapist fantasy – Sucker Punch – which milked its fantasy sequences for all they were worth. But you got the escapism there and the fantasy seemed like something you would love to be involved in. Here Terabithia seems almost like an afterthought. I kind of feel like the film does a good job of playing up the friendship between Jess and Leslie – so that Terabithia isn’t really needed. I think maybe changing the movie’s art style to reflect Terabithia could have been a good idea too. For example Jess is an artist. Wouldn’t it have been really cool to have the things in Terabithia represented by some of his drawings? That’s just my two cents. The CGI and character designs for the creatures in Terabithia is actually really good. I just don’t feel like they play enough of a role in the story.
The film has the slight difficulty of its source material being from another time. The book was written in the 1970s and the film was made in 2007. The film seems as though it’s creating a bit of a timeless feel to it – as there’s a notable lack of things that would date it to the mid-2000s. But then again there’s a few things in there that would have been fine in the 70s but raise eyebrows in the 2000s. The first is the attitude towards bullying. Numerous times the children are tormented rather brutally by bullies – and not a single adult does anything to intervene. No teacher steps in and stops Janice Avery charging kids to use the restroom? There’s no one to reprimand Fulcher and Hoager for attacking Jess in the hallways? The bus driver turns a blind eye to Janice throwing various bits of food at people? Bullying was regarded as a harmless “oh well, kids will be kids” part of life in the 70s. In the late 2000s, attitudes towards bullying really intensified. A similar issue is the reveal that Janice’s father hits her. It’s glossed over in the film much in the same way that domestic violence was in the 70s. It was presented as a bad thing but not a major concern. Since it’s said that the police had to be called, it’s surprising that there’s no mention of Janice being put into foster care or the father being taken away. Since she’s a minor character there’s a lot that could happen off-screen, but it’s weird that the film barely acknowledges it. Then there’s the questionable part where Miss Edmunds invites Jess to the museum on a Saturday. Again there’s nothing sinister at work – since Leslie is invited too in the book – but with the rise of the awareness of abusive teachers…well it’s a sticky situation. The thing that raises eyebrows is that the teacher calls Jess personally to ask him – rather than first asking his parents for permission. On a more superficial level there’s a lot of slang that sounds like it’s straight out of the 70s and makes the eyes roll – “dead meat”, “loser detector”, “twinkle toes”…
On the flip side, the film does actually do away with a lot of other things from the book that wouldn’t hold up in 2007. For example in the book the main conflict between Jess and his father is because of Jess’s love of art. It’s looked down on as a ‘feminine’ pastime and makes sort of a Billy Elliot type friction. His father of course wants him to be manlier, and Leslie’s role is to encourage that side of him. That’s less of a big deal in the 2000s and you’d be hard pressed to find a family that’s worried that their son liking art means he’s gay. The film changes it more to a conflict between Jess being childish and his father wanting him to grow up. Jess also seems to be slightly jealous of the affection his father shows little Maybelle, which gets reflected when he meets Leslie’s parents and gets encouragement from her father. And the incident that happens later in the book serves as a way to help mend the bond between father and son. Likewise in the book a big part of Leslie being an outcast is her being a tomboy. Might have been a big deal in the 70s but from the 90s onwards it was ‘cool’ to be a tomboy. Lisa Simpson, Daria, Hermione Granger, Matilda and various female Power Rangers gave tomboyish types more representation in the media – so it would be less of a character conflict in the 2000s. So here it’s more played up that Leslie’s imagination and attitude is what makes her different from the other kids. Also Leslie’s parents are hippies in the book, but changed to just quirky writers in the film.
Going onto another flip side, the film’s tone is a wee bit hard to take. Sometimes I feel as though coming of age stories can be hard to take because there’s usually a lot of forced sentiment. A good writer and filmmaker is able to use sentiment to good effect – it’s why My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic proved to be such a hit with adult males. But if the sentiment doesn’t feel earned or believable, the audience isn’t going to buy it. This film is kind of in the middle. The Nostalgia Critic bashed it for this reason and likened it to a bubble-gum commercial. I wouldn’t go that far but there is definitely an element of ‘forced magic’ that I saw a lot of in Hook. The biggest scene worthy of an eye-roll is when Jess meets Leslie’s parents. They’re almost inhumanly perfect and cheery and they immediately start dancing as they paint their living room. I get that they’re meant to be a foil to Jess’s rather neglectful parents but it’s an unbelievably corny scene. Elsewhere the movie kind of forces us to view some sequences as magical – using triumphant epic music, slow motion shots and dreamy lighting. For example the scene of Jessie and Leslie running and later swinging on the rope gets this treatment and it really doesn’t need it. The subsequent montage of them working in the treehouse is handled much better, and helps convey Jess and Leslie’s growing friendship. Likewise the scenes with Miss Edmunds manage to hit the right note for whimsy without too much cheese. And the “free the pee” scene is somewhere in between – silly but yet still amusing. Some of the dialogue between the children is a tad unrealistic and far too akin to a Hallmark TV movie. The talk about religion in particular feels like something that got cut from The Christmas Shoes. I’m a positive person and even I found that too schmaltzy. Children unfortunately aren’t innocent little angels who have discussions like that. Look to movies like The Sandlot, My Girl, Mean Creek, Stand By Me etc. if you want to see more accurate portrayals of how kids talk.
There’s a major plot point that I really can’t discuss without damn near spoiling the entire film – because it comes completely out of left field. So I suggest you stop reading now if you want to beware of SPOILERS!
So at the end of the second act, it’s revealed that Leslie has actually died. While Jess was at the museum with Miss Edmunds, she swung across the rope to Terabithia but fell into the creek and drowned. It’s something that completely alters the tone of the film. And yet it’s the entire reason for the novel’s existence. The author wrote it specifically as a tribute to a friend of her son’s, who died unexpectedly. The Nostalgia Critic praised this part of the film, and I’m inclined to agree. It was pretty gutsy of the film to go there and actually explore how a child would react to a playmate suddenly dying. Rather than going down the Hallmark route of “she’s in a better place now” and trying to sugar-coat the death, the movie goes to some very brave places. Most of the scenes that revolve around Jess trying to deal with Leslie’s death are incredibly effective. The only part I didn’t like was the fact that the bullies still antagonise him over it. I thought it was just tasteless and a bit of shallow character writing. But then again the follow-up scenes with the teacher trying to comfort Jess, and Janice seemingly making friends with him still work too. The climactic scene between Jess and his father is definitely the high point of the film and provides that much-needed pay off that a lot of the earlier scenes lacked. Major props have to go to Robert Patrick for his wildly against type performance. He claimed he took on this role so his children could enjoy a film of his.
The rest of the acting in the film is pretty solid. The two child actors – Josh Hutcherson and AnnaSophia Robb – are incredibly good. They pretty much have to carry the film, since so much emphasis is on the friendship between Jess and Leslie. A lot of people seem to slate Hutcherson’s acting in The Hunger Games, but I think this film proves that he’s got the chops. It’s incredibly difficult for a child to really convey actual emotion at a loss. The only other time I’ve felt this genuine raw emotion coming from a child actor is River Phoenix in Stand By Me. It helps that Hutcherson has quite good chemistry with Robb. She herself was a huge fan of the book and wrote a letter to the director about how excited she was to see the film. It’s apparent immediately that she really understood the character and exactly how to play her. A lot of this film does depend on how Leslie is presented. She essentially fills a preteen Manic Pixie Dream Girl role towards Jess, so the performance was what could make or break her as a character. Thankfully in Robb’s case it’s the former. It’s not surprisingly at all that the two children went on to enjoy success in adulthood.
With Leslie already filling the Manic Pixie role, you’d think that means Zooey Deschanel has almost nothing to do in this film. But she’s someone I really could have seen more of. She plays a ‘cool teacher’ archetype and is very pleasant in all her scenes. She definitely reminds me of a couple of teachers I had in school that I loved very much. I already praised Robert Patrick’s performance but I think I’ll do so again. I can appreciate very much that Patrick doesn’t make his character a run of the mill aloof father. Rather than painting it with that black and white brush, Patrick still makes the father very likeable and makes it clear that he loves his son underneath it all. It’s rather reminiscent of Michael Madsen’s turn in Free Willy. Another face I was happy to spot in the cast is the underrated Bailee Madison, who plays the younger sister Maybelle. She gets more screen time and development than the rest of the sisters, and proves to be an enjoyable addition. I was very impressed with Bailee Madison’s job as the young Snow White in Once Upon A Time and I’m pleased to see that she had her flair even at this age. She’s able to make the character funny as well as endearing – not to mention she’s quite brilliant at looking like a kicked puppy when the occasion calls for it.
So Bridge to Terabithia…well in spite of the misaimed marketing, it managed to do pretty well. $137 million at the box office ain’t nothing to sneer at. Both the child actors got steadily more roles and are still steadily working to this day. Opinion on this film seems to range from ‘the most heart breaking thing ever’ to ‘sappy corny schmaltz’. I don’t think it’s bad. I came away from it feeling it had a lot going for it. The main problems were the overly sentimental bits that The Nostalgia Critic tore into the film for – as well as the lack of focus on the actual fantasy world. One critic noted that the film couldn’t decide if it were a fantasy or a coming of age story. But in spite of some questionable directing choices, the story itself is pretty solid and the performances of the two leads are enough to keep me interested. While some of the other child actors aren’t as good, Hutcherson and Robb do not disappoint. I wouldn’t call this the greatest coming of age story ever, but it’s hardly the worst. A 6/10 seems to be a pretty fair rating in my opinion.