Bridge to Terabithia: An Appreciation
Maybe I’m a crank; possibly I’m just rooting for the underdog; I, however, like to think I have a finely tuned fannish sensibility.
Back when Steven Spielberg’s ET (the film about the good aliens) was setting a box-office record that would stand for a decade, I was fonder of a movie that got lost in the shuffle: the remake of The Thing (the bad-alien movie), starring Kurt Russell and based on John W. Campbell’s classic short story “Who Goes There?”.
Then when the world was going ga-ga over The Matrix, I kept pleading in vain for people to also see what I considered to be a better artificial-reality film, The 13th Floor, starring the underappreciated Gretchen Mol and based on the science-fiction novel Simulacron-3 by Daniel F. Galouye.
It’s happened again. In the last year there have been 2 big-budget films aimed squarely at the young-adult market: Narnia and Eragon. Now along comes a similar film with an FX budget that was probably put together with the spare change swept off the accounting-room floor from those other 2: Bridge to Terabithia, based on the novel by Katherine Paterson.
(And maybe we’re getting lucky. I have yet to see The Last Mimzy, based on “Mimsy Were the Borogoves” by Lewis Padgett [really Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore], but I was favorably impressed by the brief clips shown on Ebert & Roeper and reassured by the fact that Richard Roeper didn’t get it.)
Yes, Terabithia is aimed at the youth market. And, yes, this is evidenced by the fact that over 90% of its screen time is devoted to its 2 young leads, Josh Hutcherson as Jesse Aarons and AnnaSophia Robb as Leslie Burke. They play school kids in about 6th or 7th grade. There is no sex. Notwithstanding all of this, it is a love story, and I believe adults will find it as deeply moving as teens, perhaps more so.
Ostensibly, of course, it’s a fantasy, but it’s a fantasy grounded in a world of solid reality. Jesse is the lone boy among 5 kids in a hardscrabble family in a losing battle with the mortgage. His parents love him in a kind of distracted, distant way. He’s a quiet kid who’d rather be alone with his drawings of imaginary worlds and creatures.
Leslie is the new girl in town. Her parents are writers, and they’re currently wrapped up in their new book project and have little time for her. She’s had kind of a bohemian upbringing, dresses funny, and isn’t at all concerned with social conventions. (She’s perfectly willing, for example, to join in a footrace with the boys, something that’s evidently Not Done Here.)
These 2 are the butt of jokes and pranks. Jesse’s folks are always telling him to get more down to Earth, to get his head out of the clouds. But they at least pay attention; Leslie’s mom and dad are practically invisible. Nobody really understands these kids, and their loneliness is palpable.
They are fans.
They never use the term, of course, because they haven’t discovered science fiction or fandom. But they both have vivid imaginations, and once they meet (shyly, awkwardly), they give each other license to let those imaginations flourish. They live just down the road from each other, and nearby is a creek with a rope swing that they use to cross over to a wooded area that becomes their fantasy land, which they name Terabithia. Here their flights of fancy come to life. Squirrels become ogres, pinecones become grenades, hornets become miniature armored warriors, and a gnarly old tree becomes a giant troll. A deserted tree house becomes their castle. And you see it all magically transform itself thru their eyes.
Because this is a movie about people, not razzle-dazzle, the limited and subtle use of CGI is all the more effective for judiciously picking its moments. It’s just a lovely scene when Leslie is standing in front of the class, reading aloud her essay on scuba diving, and Jesse visualizes the bubbles emerging from her nose and fish swimming past her eyes.
These are folks as real as the ones next door. In small roles as roving music teacher Ms. Edmonds and Jesse’s younger sister Maybelle, Zooey Deschanel and little Bailee Madison strike just the right notes. And Robert Patrick has never been better than here as Jesse’s hard-working, no-nonsense father.
No empires rise or fall here. Nobody travels faster than light. The rent still comes due, and no magic makes it all better. Destiny will not turn on the events depicted.
Bridge to Terabithia is a small film, but one that never strikes a false note. It goes straight to the heart and gets it right every time.
By the time Jesse and Leslie realize that they love each other, I had come to love them both.
I think you will too.