Bridge to Terabithia (2007)
I was fully prepared to hate Bridge to Terabithia, and not just because I was watching it on a Greyhound bus en route from Boston to New York, a trip that I would generally rather spend reading a good book than watching, well, what I expected to be a bad interpretation of a good book.
Hollywood doesn’t do literature well all that often. Disney gets it right even less often than Hollywood in general does. The CGI-driven ad campaign did not inspire any confidence that this would be an exception to those rules, and I made a point of missing this when it hit theaters.
Katherine Paterson’s novel, Bridge to Terabithia, occupies a special place in my childhood memories. At the time I read it (5th grade), I found it very difficult. This is classic tragedy written against the backdrop of childhood, and a big part of the message that the book sends is that life can be viciously unfair. I can’t say that I liked the book the first time I read it, but I can say that it left a lasting impression and that it was one of those books that I grew to love and now look back on as one of the very important reading experiences of my childhood. This would be difficult material for a film to get right.
As it turns out, Disney got a lot more of it right than I was expecting them to.
First of all, while I don’t want to spoil, I will say that the plot was left basically intact, including the ending. Jesse Aarons, a seventh grader in a rural town struggles to find acceptance from his father as he discovers the power of friendship and the power of the imagination through a girl who has just moved into town. The two of them find an escape from life’s problems in an imaginary magical kingdom.
The characters, even the minor characters, are given some nice depth here. Even the bully and the “mean teacher” get some moments of complexity. In general, the casting was solid, as was the acting. Robert Patrick, as Jesse’s no-nonsense dad, gives an expecially strong performance during the last act. Josh Hutcherson as Jesse is convincing throughout the film, and Zooey Deschanel is just plain fun as a charismatic and freethinking music teacher.
The character of Leslie is the really challenging role here, and while I don’t want to come down too hard on a young actress, I found AnnaSophia Robb’s handling of the role to be somewhat hit-or-miss. Her look is a bit too Disney-cute for a character who in the book is at first mistaken for a boy by Jesse. Ms. Robb does have her moments, including a brilliant bit of dialogue about religion, and a few places where she really makes the power of the imagination truly wonderful.
The keeping of the plot close to the original story, and the generally good script and acting both contributed to raising this film way above the expectations I had for it, but I still had an issue with some of the use of visual effects.
Simply put, Katherine Paterson’s novel is about the liberating power of imagination, and, in the end, about the healing power of that same quality. The magical kingdom of Terabithia in the novel is revealed only sparingly, and almost entirely through dialogue. When Leslie does battle against pretend foes, the reader is left to decide for himself or herself what exactly it is that Leslie imagines. That is the power of imagination, delivered in a way that cannot be done with special effects.
There is a basic hypocrisy in creating a film about the healing power of an imagined magical kingdom and then denying the audience the opportunity to use their own imaginations, instead substituting in the producers’ visions of dragonfly-faeries and squirrel-monsters.
The imposition of visuals upon written fiction is always a little bit problematic, but when the overlying theme is one of freedom to imagine, the film version undermines the very concept of the story.
That being said, this film still managed to make a pretty decent effort and tell an emotionally gripping story.