Saturday, January 12, 2008

Bridge To Terabithia (2007)

Bridge To Terabithia
Directed by Gabor Csupo
Starring: Josh Hutcherson, AnnaSophia Robb, Bailee Madison, Robert Patrick, Zooey Deschanel
Grade: B
(This review contains major spoilers)

Things are not always as they seem. Upon first glance Gabor Csupo's Bridge To Terabithia (adapted from Katherine Paterson's book of the same name) looks every inch the magical children's fantasy, but in truth is a long way away from that. Jesse Aarons (Josh Hutcherson) is a shy ten year-old living on a farm with his big but relatively poor family. When new girl Leslie Burke (AnnaSophia Robb) outruns him in the school sports day he resents her presence but soon perks up when she takes a keen interest in his drawing hobby. The two make friends and together explore the neighbouring farmland together, creating an imaginary land Terabithia, in which their real-life problems are tackled through their imagination; the school bully transformed into a giant troll, and so forth.

For the most part the screenwriters know exactly what to push and what not to push, introducing themes of child abuse, neglect, grief, and making none of these issues feel out of place, half-hearted or banded around for the mere sake of it. It even includes questionable parents that are neither token villains nor epiphanic figures, and don't really seem to learn anything in the film. If somebody asked you to write a book or a film about growing up, where on earth do you start? Terabithia draws all of its characters with such truth, and a knowledge of what it really means to be a kid, juxtaposing the honesty of these characters with the archetypal constructs of their inner demons in the imaginary world. The film's uncompromised vision is extended to what is its most touching element, the central relationship. Jesse and Leslie are never reduced to a cute couple, and there's never any blatant hell-for-leather attempt to suggest that they're going to be. Terabithia achieves most of what it achieves through this careful approach, crafting a relationship out of solace, and a fantasy world out of escapism.

It comes as an overwhelming shock then -- not really in the sense of tone or theme, but approach -- that after spending the first act of the film endearing Leslie to us, she is then killed off on the hour mark. Far be it from me to criticise something for not adhering to genre convention but if this knocked me for six, what is it going to do to the average 8-10 year-old who see this film, and probably don't even understand death? The event itself is cinematically problematic but when coupled with the film's marketing techniques makes Terabithia seem the insidious picture that at heart it really isn't. Death isn't used in the film to make the point but rather to re-enforce it, her presence in the film and lack thereof used to strengthen Jesse's arc, which is admittedly very touching. I feel harsh laying into a film that gets so much right, but the one thing it gets wrong is close to horrific. Leslie as a character, and her death, really calls into question her role in the film, her purity and apparent perfection almost suggest she be the film's 'angel' and not a character at all. There's no doubting that she has the most impact of any character but curiously her own family troubles are explored somewhat, which now makes me wonder why.

The oustanding uncertainty, and the overall lack of any real closure, will not please the film's average audience, yet for us who have lived through childhood and adolescence it strikes a telling chord. It takes a well-made picture to use death so brashly and abruptly and yet not feel manipulative. It stumbles a little in its final act but Terabithia is a gutsy and beautiful film because crucially, it knows what it wants to say, and doesn't need to jump through your hoops to say it.

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