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Saturday, February 17, 2007

The Bridge to Terabithia

How many of you check out the popular web site www.youtube.com? There are several very funny spoofs of movie trailers posted there in which some clever lads have taken classic films and made faux movie trailers that completely misrepresent these pictures as something they are not simply by editing together the actual trailer footage and adding alternate mood music appropriate for the selected genre. For example, picture Psycho as a romantic comedy a la Rock Hudson and Doris Day, The Sound of Music as a horror thriller or Top Gun as a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” pre-Brokeback Mountain love story. Obviously, the same people responsible for these clever bits of whimsy are more than qualified to work for both Disney and Walden Media, the producers and distributors of The Bridge to Terabithia, a new movie currently playing at the Essex Cinemas.

If you were to believe the television advertising or the theatrical trailers for The Bridge to Terabithia, this is a film full of special effects and is basically another knock-off of The Chronicles of Narnia or The Lord of the Rings
trilogy. The previews promise audiences a world full of flying insect warriors, monstrous walking trees, gigantic grinning trolls, fantastical castles, and a great and magical land like we all might recall from our childhood fairytales. Okay, so all of those scenes in the two minute trailer are in the movie, yes, it’s true, but they are the only bits of mythical mysticism you are going to see, and if you came to the movie expecting to escape reality in a Harry Potter sort of way you are going to be terribly disappointed because The Bridge to Terabithia is going to slap you hard in the face with a big dose of real life, so consider yourself warned.

This is not to say that The Bridge to Terabithia is not a good movie. It is a
wonderful and moving story about human relationships and will more likely than not bring you to tears before it is over. It’s just not what it is advertised. Instead, it is a tough story to watch, a reminder to adults of how grim and awful children can be to one another, for one thing. I found myself transported back to elementary school in a way I never have been before while watching a film. Screenwriters Jeff Stockwell (
The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys) and David Paterson (Fragments) wrote the script based on the novel of the same name by Paterson’s mother, Katherine Paterson, who wrote it about David and his best friend when he was growing up as a boy. Hence the dialogue rings very true to life, and the situations as recollected here do not seem contrived or ‘sitcomed’ as often happen on film today. Instead we see the cruelty of kids with their snotty taunts, pranks, pushing, tripping, and generally doing whatever they can to make the lives of their ‘enemies” miserable. I guarantee you that no matter how long it has been since you were in school (and in my case we only had to memorize the capitols of 13 colonies since “states” were still a Democracy away), you will instantly feel that you are in the same moment as main characters Jesse Aarons (Josh Hutcherson; Zathura: A Space Adventure) and Leslie Burke (AnnaSophia Robb; Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), sharing their world. Unfortunately, this is a harsh world, where both kids are bullied at school and ignored at home. The film is primarily shown from Jesse’s point of view, and we follow him through his days of being continually tormented by a trio of obnoxious classmates who have made him their target. Jess is not a fighter, though, and so his only solace is in retreating into his private book of drawings back home in his bedroom. Jesse is a terrific artist and here is one place he can express himself freely, where he can show his feelings and let his imagination run free. As for Leslie, she is the new girl in school, having just moved next door to Jesse, and so she has instantly become a target of ridicule simply for being “new”, but, unlike Jesse, she shows no fear and becomes a stellar example to all those children who are bullied when she makes it clear that she will not be a victim of their mean-spiritedness. Leslie really is a wonderful character and a role model for pre-teens, teens, and basically anyone who feels they need a reminder that we all have it in ourselves to be brave, even if we don’t think we do. She may only be 10, but she knows that she has as much right as anyone else to live her life fully, and she is not going to let some twerp interfere with her over living her dreams. This, of course, becomes Jesse’s biggest test later in the film when he is challenged in the most tragic and shocking of plot twists. Can Jesse move through the worst trauma imaginable and come out stronger for having experienced the heartache?

Yes, this is a not a happy, sparkling fantasy as you may expect. Oh, the kids do collaborate on creating a fantasy world of their own, using their imaginations to create “Terabithia”, but this is so they can forget about what happens to them in the real world. In Terabithia, they keep their "minds wide open" and fantasize the fanciful CGI visions of the trailers, but they spend less time in Terabithia than Paris Hilton spends putting on her underpants before a photo-shoot, so don’t expect much.

Ironically, The Bridge to Terabithia is at its best when it abandons the CGI animation and sticks to the gritty story of the kids’ real life problems.
Besides the school toughs, there is a relatable subplot about Jesse’s first crush, on an attractive music teacher (Zooey Deschanel (
Failure to Launch), and his more significant never-ending efforts to gain the love and respect of his father, played with menacing gruffness by Robert Patrick (Flags of Our Fathers). Also, the underlying struggle of Jesse’s parents to make it financially from month to month, or even week to week, is like a breathing monster itself in every family scene as both parents seem withered from spending their time bent over the pile of bills that never quite get caught up. While this may mean little to Jesse on the surface, it will surely add an understandable weight to the scenario for the grown-up audience who will understand the pressure cooker of an environment in which the boy lives. He has no one to look to for friendship or understanding but his neighbor Leslie, and so the bond between the two becomes a precious and invaluable thing. That is the key to The Bridge to Terabithia and what results is a quiet love story about two kids who don’t even know they love one another.

This is a movie that will break your heart but it will also leave you marveling at the fact that the real Jesse, David Paterson, still feels so strongly about the bond he formed with his “Leslie” from 30+ years ago (actually a girl named Lisa Hill) that he felt compelled to hold out on allowing Hollywood to turn the story into a feature until he found a studio willing to give him a voice in the story’s development so that his and his mother’s “characters” would be honored for who they were. And so they finally are. The Bridge to Terabithia does a wonderful job of capturing a certain moment in time. Do yourself a favor and take a moment from your busy life and head on down to the Essex Cinemas to see it. Just remember to bring a tissue or two.

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