Sunday, February 25, 2007

Bridge to Terabithia

BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA (Gabor Csupo, 2007)

Katherine Paterson's Newbery Medal-winning book BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA lingers in my mind for being the first tragedy I remember reading as a child. While the story details have faded in memory, the tearjerking ending made enough of an impression that the book stuck with me.

BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA tells of the unlikely friendship between Jesse Aarons (Josh Hutcherson) and Leslie Burke (AnnaSophia Robb). Jesse dislikes the new girl in his class almost immediately. Her funky clothes and active imagination attract scrutiny from his classmates, but Jesse has a problem with her because she beat him at a race. You know that boys can't let girls be better than them.

Jesse's family struggles to get by, meaning that when his taped-up running shoes can no longer stay together, he gets a hand-me-down pair of his sister's pink sneakers as replacements. It's how his family survives, but such fashion disasters make him a bully magnet.

Jesse warms up to Leslie when he notices her fearlessness in facing the bullies. Something of an outcast herself, Leslie makes a concerted effort to become friends with the boy next door. She admires Jesse's drawings, and the two discover that they share creative spirits. They develop a magical world of their own dubbed Terabithia in a section of the forest reachable only by using a rope to swing over the creek. There Jesse and Leslie are free to indulge their fantasies in a place where they are the invulnerable rulers who fight off monsters.

Unlike many films aimed at children, BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA has a grungy feel to match its heavier themes. The screenplay, adapted by Jeff Stockwell and the novelist's son David Paterson, addresses financial hardship and the cruelty of kids in a manner that's startling for anything coming out of Hollywood, let alone a movie for younger viewers.

While it's admirable that BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA isn't sugar-coated, more often than not it plays as miserabilism for kids. Jesse gets remote race cars and a track for his birthday. When the toy doesn't work to perfection, his father (Robert Patrick) explodes with anger because he couldn't afford something better. It's an honest moment, but this and plenty more like it become oppressive, especially since the friendship scenes don't balance the weightier subject matter.

First time feature director Gabor Csupo lacks assurance in managing the intermingling of hardscrabble daily life and fantasy elements. The Terabithia scenes have been NARNIA-ized, a choice out of step with the story's more grounded nature. This material is ripe for David Gordon Green's poetic touch. From his delicate Terrence Malick-influenced GEORGE WASHINGTON to UNDERTOW, a clear riff on THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, Green has demonstrated his capacity for rendering wonder and fear through the eyes of children.

Thematically BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA bites off more than it can chew. The movie has already been undone by too many big, underexplored matters when a discussion about God and religion is shoehorned into it. The pivotal third act event, the one part I remember from the book, doesn't flow naturally from the plot and feels like a cheat. (I don't recall whether this is a weakness in Paterson's novel also.)

BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA realistically presents childhood worries and smart main characters. That and its determination not to speak down to pre-adolescents are nice changes from kids' movies that treasure stupidity. BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA can be too serious for its own good, though. In failing to decide between being a coming-of-age tale or a fantasy film, it hits some sour notes that confirm the perception that those with the brains are drags.

Grade: C

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