Toon Talk: Bridge to Terabithia
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by Kirby C. Holt
(c) Disney / Walden Media
Bridge to Terabithia
Walt Disney Pictures Presents
A Walden Media Production
MPAA Rating: PG
It must be tough for fantasy films nowadays. Following in the profitable footsteps of the residents of Middle Earth, Narnia and Hogwarts, any story with a glimmer of the fantastical that doesn't include the words Rings, Chronicles or Harry in the title must face an uphill battle to stand out in the crowd of wizards, warriors and wardrobes.
Even a fine film such as Bridge to Terabithia (in theaters now), which is essentially a coming-of-age story with fantasyland trimmings, is being marketed as the next great epic adventure into the land of magic and myth. And while the titular Terabithia is populated with giant woodland trolls and furry flying beasties, the bulk of the story concerns matters more down to earth. First-time feature director Gabor Csupo (whose previous works as writer/producer include such toon favorites as The Simpsons, Rugrats and The Wild Thornberrys) nicely blends the realistic with the fantastic, ably balancing the two to create a moving alternative to today's mostly crass attempts at "family entertainmentâ€?.
(c) Disney / Walden Media
Based on the award-winning children's novel by Katherine Paterson, Bridge begins, as most of its ilk does, by stacking the deck against our protagonist, Jess (played by RV's Josh Hutcherson). Jess is the only son of a poor family who is not only saddled with most of the chores on their farm, but also must wear his big sister's hand-me-down (pink) sneakers. Cue the braying schoolyard bullies. A ray of hope arrives on the first day of school with new girl Leslie (AnnaSophia Robb, last seen as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory's Violet Beauregarde), a wide-eyed (and over-accessorized) free spirit who also happens to be the girl next door. The outcast duo strike up a friendship and, through their vivid imaginations (Jess is an aspiring artist, Leslie a budding writer like her bohemian parents), envision their own magical paradise just over the creek that borders their homes. "Terabithiaâ€?, as Leslie calls it, is all theirs and theirs only, a place for them to escape the realities of overbearing parents and unforgiving schoolmates. About a third of the way into the film, the story takes a dramatic turn that shifts it into a whole other mood whilst still retaining its power, slowly and steadily building on it to a satisfying, and tear-soaked, denouement.
With its mixture of the real with the imagined, Bridge to Terabithia is not without its cinematic forebears. Vivacious Leslie's entrance into the drab surroundings is not unlike Kate Winslet's character's in Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures; in fact, the premise of the these two films are very similar (without, of course, the lesbian subtext and matricidal subplot of the latter). For a more recent example, one only has to look to Guillermo del Toro's dark fable Pan's Labyrinth. Certainly these other two films are more adult in nature, but the more family-friendly Terabithia does touch on such subjects as mortality and religion that may be more suitable to older children.
Not that the film is all seriousness. I particularly liked the matter-of-fact way that Jess and Leslie's imaginations are literally brought to life on screen via (mostly convincing) computer animation. And the performances of the two young leads (plus moppet Bailee Madison as Jess's cutie-patootie younger sister May Belle) are refreshingly naturalistic, in a non-Hollywood kid sort of way. Lending support as the adults of the story are Terminator 2's Robert Patrick as Jess's father and Elf's Zooey Deschanel as an inspiring teacher in the Laura-Dern-in October-Sky vein.