A worthy adaptation of Katherine Paterson's beloved children's book.

James Plath's picture

The cover art for "Bridge to Terabithia" shows a boy, a girl, a castle, and assorted creatures, along with the tagline "from the studios that brought you "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe." But don't be deceived. This isn't a fantasy story. It's a coming-of-age story in which two people imagine so creatively that it becomes fantasy for them.

Most coming-of-age stories are about sex, but while there are subtle sexual stirrings here, it's all kept in the realm of stolen glances and unrequited love. This story is about death, that ruder introduction to the world of adulthood. It's also about a deep friendship, which is why it's so Romeo-and-Juliet tragic that one of them dies suddenly. Yes, that's a spoiler if you haven't read the Newberry Award-winning book by Katherine Paterson, but since this is a PG family film and youngsters are going to be watching, it needed to be said. More than the "thematic elements including bullying, some pain, and mild language" that pushed this past a G rating, it's the death of a main character that has the potential to traumatize little ones the way that Bambi's mother did for my generation. I suggest warning them, telling them that one of the main characters dies. For the very young ones, you can remind them that it's just a movie, and that they're only pretending. With the older ones, it might be just the lead-in you need to talk about mortality and all that's related to living life to the fullest . . . which includes forming meaningful relationships.

Paterson's story was inspired by a true event. The playmate of her eight-year-old son was struck and killed by lightning while she was at the beach. "Bridge to Terabithia" was the author's way of trying to explain and interpret the ultimate "not fair" incident to her son.
The book was a tearjerker, and so is the film-though it doesn't go nearly as far down that sad path as Paterson's novel. There's no long funeral scene, nothing about the creepiness of cremation, and very little of "the Jesus thing" by comparison. And the character who survives doesn't wallow in guilt as much as that person does in the book. That's not bad, though, given the power that film has. A little always goes a long way when you see it there in front of you on a gigantic screen, rather than a page of words on your lap that you have to visualize.

Good family films are tough to come by these days. Too many of them include "farts" or gross-out humor, or try to be edgy and hip, which is gradually producing a new generation of people with the ultimate attitude problem. Or else the films go the other direction and play strictly to the kids, leaving the adults and older siblings rolling their eyes at the sheer insipidness of it all. So it's refreshing to find a film that, for all its familiarity of situation and characters, has something to say to everyone in the family. "Bridge to Terabithia" is about finding yourself, sure, but it's mostly about enduring the taunts that others might throw at you and finding refuge wherever you can . . . in this case, with the thing that most fifth grade boys would consider a last resort: a girl.

First-time feature director Gabor Csupo had a great story to work with, but he couldn't have come up with two better stars. Josh Hutcherson is convincing as Jess Aarons, a fifth grader who couldn't be more isolated if he was washed up on a desert island. His dad doesn't give him the attention he craves, his two older sisters cut him down, a younger sister follows him around everywhere like an untrained puppy, and he's the target of bullies at school. But it's AnnaSophia Robb who really shines. Her character is supposed to be a life-changing life force, one of those clichéd people who can light up the room and change the energy level just by walking into it, and that's how it is. When she's onscreen, there's a special feeling. Robb plays Leslie Burke, whose writer parents (Latham Gaines and Judy McIntosh) moved into a home next door to the Aarons in a rural community. In the book, it was Virginia, but this film was shot in New Zealand and so the place isn't as specific. Conversely, the book was set in the '70s, and Leslie's parents were a bit on the "hippy" side, as was the cool music teacher at school who connects with both kids, Ms. Edmonds (Zooey Deschanel).

Jess wants to be an artist, and Leslie encourages him. She has her parents' flair for writing. In no time at all, she pulls Jess into her own imaginative world, and the two of them take to using a rope-swing to transport themselves across a river and into a world apart, which she dubs "Terabithia." Here, they find and rebuild an old treehouse that they imagine is their castle, and here they defend the good inhabitants of Terabithia against the Dark Master (a harbinger of death) and assorted creatures. The so-so- CGI creature sequences go on too long and, frankly, they're nowhere near as interesting as the daily interaction between the two tweens, but since this book celebrates the imagination it's certainly not an inappropriate way to go. Paterson appears in a bonus feature saying how worried she was about the computer effects, but Csupo makes it clear that these are only figments of the kids' imaginations. This isn't another "Chronicles of Narnia," in other words. It's a film about building relationships, as the ending reinforces. And for families, there's not a better theme.

The 1080 HD picture is presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and while there's just a hint of graininess in some of the outdoor scenes, the picture is a noticeable improvement over the DVD (which I've also seen). There's just more detail and clarity in the Blu-ray, and you don't have to do a frame-by-frame comparison to see that. The colors are eye-popping and the black levels are perfect.

The audio is also quite good, with the featured one an English PCM 5.1 (uncompressed) 48kHz/24-bit soundtrack. Alternate tracks are in English, French, and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1. As always, the PCM is robust and resonant, filling the room with sound. And as always, the DD 5.1 seems flatter by comparison. Subtitles are in English SDH, French, and Spanish.

A bit of a rip-off here. I don't know why, with such a beloved children's book, Disney wouldn't have gone 50-gig on this one to accommodate all the extras from the DVD, but neither the commentary with director Csupo, writer Jeff Stockwell, and producer Hal Lieberman nor the commentary with the two young stars and producer Lauren Levine is included here. That's too bad, because while they weren't exceptional, both commentaries still had plenty of revelations.

What IS here? The two short features on "Digital Imagination: Bringing Terabithia to Life" and "Behind the Book: The Themes of Bridge to Terabithia." As these things go, they're both really good, made especially so by appearances from the author (who looks a bit like an old-school librarian). Rounding out the extras is a music video, "Keep Your Mind Wide Open," by Robb. It's almost requisite these days that a young Disney star be able to sing as well as act. It's a good thing that Kurt Russell and Jodi Foster came up when they did!

Bottom Line:
"Bridge to Terabithia" is a worthy adaptation of Katherine Paterson's beloved children's book, made special by the performances of the two young stars. Hutcherson and Robb are a pair to watch, especially Robb. If Robb keeps lighting up the screen every time she performs, her adult films are going to be something to watch.


Film Value