The 2007 cinematic version of Katherine Paterson’s superb 1977 coming-of-age novel about two young friends is a special film. For those unfamiliar with the source material Terabithia centers around the exceptional friendship of Jess Aarons, an exceptionally talented but poor son in a family of sisters, and Leslie Burke, an imaginative newcomer to the neighborhood. The burdens of youth are never easy, particularly for those struggling to find acceptance in an ever-changing world. As these two somehow find each, they form a powerful relationship that will last forever, even when life itself dictates otherwise.
The prevailing themes of imagination and youth are evident throughout, as Jess copes with being the only boy in a family of women, desperately wanting his father’s approval but not his scorn. In Leslie he discovers a way out of desperation, a soul mate who not only shares his penchant for the imagination but exceeds his own. As their relationship deepens they create the fictional world of Terabithia that allows them to vent and explore their creative tendencies in full-force, not to mention escape a world filled with tribulations and very real trolls. Fate will soon enlist the power of imagination to cope with tragedy and uncertainty, which sometimes can seem farther off than even the most fictional of kingdoms.
The film succeeds largely because of its two likeable and charismatic leads, Josh Hutcherson (Jess) and AnnaSophie Robb (Leslie). Thank goodness for miracles as they two are soon entrusted with some pretty weighty material, and through it all never come across as anything less than completely believable and utterly sincere. The final act in particular strikes a powerful emotional punch, and largely falls on the talents of Hutcherson to carry the events through to their final conclusion.
Of the adult actors Robert Patrick continues to impress as his portrayal of Jess’ father hits all the right notes of a man who loves his family and is determined to see them successful. Zooey Deschanel is pitch-perfect as the beautiful music teacher Miss Edmunds. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that these two adults hold the most interest for young Jess, who’s determined to win their affections by any means necessary. The strong performances of the lead actors are the film’s real special effects and are indeed very special.
Director Gabor Csupo does a great job for directing his first live-action film, as his previous work is mostly in animation (even serving as the original inspiration for The Simpson’s character Dr. Nick Riveria “Hi Everybody!”). There are plenty of interesting artistic choices made here, and perhaps its his intimate knowledge of animation that helped Csupo reign in any temptation to allow the ‘creatures’ of the mythical land of Terebithia to outlast their welcome. Interestingly, producers Walden Media also had fellow animation-stalwart Andrew Adamson to helm the first chapters in the literary connected and fellow Walden stablemate Narnia franchise. Animation inserted into film can be a dangerous toy if not used correctly, and thankfully here Csupo doesn’t falter.
Although the novel’s fantasy elements have been substantially upgraded, they wisely never overpower the strong, central emotional core of the tragic relationship of its main characters. Thankfully the film has the power of its convictions to bravely address the very real emotions and situations that young adults will recognize, and does so remarkably well. It’s also smart enough to leave the answers open-ended and suitable for discussion. The best children’s material has always been accessible to adults, as the one thing all adults have in common is that they were all young at one time. Terabithia succeeds as true family entertainment, immediately accessible and immensely enjoyable.
If there’s anything at all about the film to criticize it wouldn’t be with the film itself, but rather how it was marketed. Although a emotional, coming-of-age tale about young friendship through the eyes of youth may not be the most marketable of stories that’s exactly what the film is, and not the magical fantasy it’s been made out to be. Nearly everything being promoted about this one is dishonest, and surprisingly has even caused the filmmakers to cry foul. Walden Media seem dead-set on adapting every beloved classic youth novel ever published, and while that itself may be an admirable mission I can only hope in the future they will have more confidence in the source material itself, and not lead audiences to believe that Terabithia is the next Narnia.
Bridge to Terabithia is a wonderful film on nearly every level, and despite a few negligible quirks, works as a wonderful challenge to Hollywood to deliver smarter, more challenging family entertainment that doesn’t come at the expense of a real emotional experience. It’s one of my deepest fears that someday the novel itself will be considered irrelevant, replaced entirely by a medium considered more accessible to a larger audience. What a shame that would be, as there are few things more enjoyable in life than settling into a personal, private experience. This version of Terabithia doesn’t replace the novel, but if it manages to engage those who would otherwise never have experienced Katherine Paterson’s original inspiration than it would have done its job. One of the best family films in years, and a true classic in its own right.
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Walt Disney Studios