Fandom is a funny thing.
Especially when we fall in love with something while we are children. We form very strong emotional attachments to the art that is important to us when we’re young. I made the mistake this weekend of poking the Transformers fans in another talkback, something I’ve done a few times now, and I genuinely feel bad about it at this point. I may not like any of the Transformers stuff I’ve seen, like the old film or the old TV show, and I may think it silly, but it’s obviously very important to a percentage of our readership, and their passion is born from a genuine place.
In the case of this book, written by Katherine Paterson and based on the experiences of her son, David, I wasn’t aware that there was a fan base because, frankly, I’d never heard of the book at all. No surprise there, of course. I don’t pretend to be aware of every single title created in every single media. When the first posters for this film showed up online, I noticed a few people talking about how important the book was to them during childhood. Looking at the Disney marketing materials, it looked like exactly what the talkbackers have dismissed it as: a Walden Media NARNIA knockoff. For people to speak so passionately of the book, it seemed like there must be something to it that the trailers weren’t showing.
And indeed there is. But any discussion of why TERABITHIA matters means discussing some important spoilers. If you’re a parent, and you’re thinking of taking your kids to see this film, I suggest you read the spoilers and consider your own child’s readiness for certain material. If you’re just curious about whether or not to see the film yourself, I’ll warn you before we dig into any of that material.
The movie’s a bittersweet look at childhood from the moment it starts. This is no sunshiney nostalgia piece. Jesse (Josh Hutcherson) finds pretty much everything about growing up difficult and frustrating, and for good reason. He’s part of a large family, and there’s not much money to go around, so everything he gets is already worn out, and chances are it was for a girl to begin with. To his credit, Jesse doesn’t walk around with a chip on his shoulder. He seems to be a decent kid, all things considered, and in particular, his art is important to him. He’s not popular at school, and does his best to just stay invisible, under everyone’s radar. He harbors a shameless crush on his music teacher (played by the imminently crushworthy Zooey Deschanel). The one other thing he knows he can do is run. He’s fast. And he’s spent the whole summer leading up to the start of the film practicing to make sure that he’ll be the fastest one in his class when school resumes for the fall.
He doesn’t anticipate that there will be a transfer student, though, who he’s never seen run before. And even worse, he doesn’t anticipate that the one person who will prove to be faster than him on that first day will be a girl, Leslie (AnnaSophia Robb). That’s exactly what happens, though, and his humiliation leads to an unlikely friendship that forms the core of this film.
Yes, you see a lot of CGI in the trailers for this film. However, what you see is most of the CGI from the film. There’s maybe ten minutes worth in the entire movie, and it’s not meant to be literal or real. Terabithia is a name that Leslie and Jesse come up with for the “magic” woods they find near their homes. These are the woods where they go to escape the stresses of money or being different or being picked on. This is the place where they can make all the rules, where they can call things whatever they want, and where no one is going to judge them for it. In order to get to Terabithia, they have to cross a river using a rope swing they find. It’s just wide enough to make it exciting, and each time they go, it’s like they’re daring each other... go ahead... swing across... make the choice to run away with me. Their friendship is the kind you tend to make most in childhood: fast, complete, and unconditional. And both Hutcherson and Robb deserve credit for the expert way they play their roles. Hutcherson’s been working for a while now, turning in notable work in films like ZATHURA, LITTLE MANHATTAN, and RV. Robb’s biggest role so far was as Violet Beauregarde in CHARLIE & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY. She’s a tiny Natalie Portman lookalike, only blonde instead of brunette, and she’s got an enormous, vivacious personality that is perfect for Leslie, the exact right complement to Hutcherson’s sullen angst as Jesse.
Most of the movie simply deals with the way their friendship evolves, and the way they spur each other on with games of imagination. That’s where the CGI comes in that you’ve seen emphasized so heavily in the trailers... as they imagine things, the audience is allowed to see what they’re describing to each other. I’m sure that’s part of why Gabor Csupo was hired to direct the film... his background in animation no doubt came in handy in putting together the CG sequences. However, he really shines as a director of children, and it’s a promising debut film for him.
Okay... remember those spoilers I warned you about? I’m going to start detailing them a bit in the next paragraph. For everyone else, I’ll just say that the film takes an upsetting turn in the final act, and younger kids may have a hard time with it. I’d be careful taking anyone under seven or so, and even with older kids, I’d make sure there was time to talk it over with them after they see it. It’s a worthwhile experience, but there are some potent life lessons built into it. It’s anything but simple escapism, and that’s the entire point of the movie.
If you don’t want to be spoiled, bail out now.
Okay. You’re asking for it.
As I said, Jesse has a massive crush on his crushworthy music teacher, Zooey Deschanel. She recognizes something in this kid. She gets the idea to take him to a museum. Jesse’s parents are good people, but they’re not the kind of people who would ever think to take their kid to a museum. For him, the trip represents a life completely away from what his parents have exposed him to, what they can give him. And with this beautiful woman taking him, it’s the perfect day. She asks him if he wants to invite Leslie along as they drive by Leslie’s house, and he tells her no. It’s a conscious choice. He wants to have the morning for himself.
And that choice absolutely haunts him.
Leslie dies while Jesse is at that museum. While he’s having the absolute best day of his life, his best friend dies, and he’s not there with her. It’s that simple. And the film doesn’t shy away from it at all. It’s doesn’t downplay it. It doesn’t softpedal. This is a film about the power of imagination, yes, but that power is tested by the most stark intrusion of reality possible. Jesse is blindsided by guilt and by grief, and it’s enough of a burden that no one would blame Jesse for breaking. At a time like that, Jesse makes some choices involving his younger sister May Belle (Bailee Madison) that give Leslie’s life real meaning, and which give BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA some real resonance.
I think the movie does right by the difficult issues it raises, and I can see how the book must have marked the young readers who have discovered it over the years. This is a subgenre of Disney films that they have always done exceptionally well, and when they work, they are unforgettable. BAMBI and OLD YELLER were both unleashed on me as a kid, and both did the precise surgical damage for which they were designed. I think the marketing of the film could have embraced this tradition of Disney storytelling instead of trying to cash in on the current fantasy craze. The film had a promising first weekend, and I hope word of mouth is good. No matter what, this will have a long video life, and it makes an honorable companion to a book that’s already endured a quarter-century.
Drew McWeeny, Los Angeles
Drew McWeeny, Los Angeles