In my opinion, no film can ever live up to the magic and poignancy of the book Bridge to Terabithia. Having established that, for what it is, this film is a successful adaptation of the novel. Author Katharine Paterson's son, David, worked on the Bridge to Terabithia movie for 17 years — and it shows. Yet there is something heartbreaking about the film version, because to read the book is to exercise your imagination and envision the world of Terabithia for yourself. In the film adaptation, all of that imaginative fun is neatly handed to the audience, so we are merely passive observers of someone else's fantasy.
Terabithia is the story of fifth-grader Jesse Aarons, whose world changes when Leslie Burke moves in next door. Independent and sure of herself, Leslie stands out from all the other students, though she doesn't seem to mind being a bit weird. She writes beautifully, while Jesse likes to run and draw but has an uneasy relationship with his father who gruffly dismisses Jesse's artistic tendencies. To see how I felt about how everything unfolds,
Jesse and Leslie become fast friends, forming an alliance against the school bullies and discovering a wooded area accessible only by swinging on a rope over a small river. They claim the area as their kingdom, calling it Terabithia, where they escape the pressures of family and the misery of schoolyard taunting. Their "enemies" become exaggerated creature versions of the actual people who cause them strife. The biggest bully at school, Janice Avery, takes the shape of a giant ogre (something that can't be good for the actual actor's self-esteem), and facing the ogre in Terabithia gives them the confidence to deal with the girl in real life. In doing so, they find that this creature is much more human than they'd ever suspected, and the ogre then becomes friendly. Therefore, Terabithia allows them to feel powerful and in control when they otherwise wouldn't.
Curiously, the movie actually does briefly touch on the problem of imagination being at odds with television/film. In class one day, the teacher tells the children to watch a particular TV program and write about it. Leslie explains that she doesn't have a TV, that her father thinks television kills brain cells. When a snotty kid ridicules her with some snide remark, telling her he watches TV all the time, she calmly states, "I rest my case."
There is also a refreshing "girl power" theme woven through the film, which is something that many other kids' fantasy movies lack. Jesse is essentially an empty canvas, easily influenced by the females in his life: Janice the bully can ruin his day, his older sisters push him around, and his biggest role model is his music teacher, the young, beautiful Ms. Edmonds (Zooey Deschanel). And, of course, his life is made full and exciting by spunky, independent Leslie.
The special effects are mercifully subdued. As director Gabor Csupo explains, if people "are anticipating a Harry Potter movie, then we are in trouble." The fantastical creatures become apparent to the children through their imaginations and only as a result of their close friendship. Thus, as Jesse starts to trust Leslie and trust in his own imagination, the creatures gradually appear to him. There is no demand on the audience to swallow some made-up fantasy world as reality, only to accept that these two best friends have built a fantasy world together, and that they believe in it. In that regard, the filmmakers did very well to not ruin the story. Still, the book is far superior, and far more important.
Photos courtesy of Buena Vista Pictures