Directed by Gabor Csupo. 2007.

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Katherine Paterson's novel “Bridge to Terabithia” is the moving story of two lonely children who rely on each other's strength to overcome their own weakness. It is a highly symbolic and multi-layered coming of age story that deals with family, friendship, imagination, and death. Sadly in the Walden Media/Disney version of Bridge to Terabithia, the combination of phony uplifting messages, wooden performances, and unimpressive special effects contribute to a film experience that offers little joy or believability, even for the 8 to 12 year old age group it is geared for. While it is decent family entertainment and its theme about the power of imagination is most welcome, the fact that so many people call this film a masterpiece only indicates to me the extent that we have lost the ability in our society to distinguish between art and kitsch.  

For those unfamiliar with Walden Media, it is a film production and publishing company owned by Philip Anschutz, a billionaire oil tycoon, recently identified by Beliefnet as the tenth most powerful Christian in Hollywood. Walden’s stated mission is to promote so-called family values - in other words to counter the left-wingers by bringing conservative Christian values back to Hollywood, one film at a time. In Bridges, the Christian angle (also present in the book) is introduced in a visit to church and a discussion between 10 and 11-year olds about whether believing in Jesus will keep you from going to hell. The scene is an obvious intrusion that seems out of place in the context of the film.  

Filmed in New Zealand and set in an unnamed rural area, Jesse Aarons (Josh Hutcherson) is a fifth grader who is bullied by his classmates presumably because he is poor and likes to draw. In the wonderful world of Disney, bullying consists of stealing twinkies and charging money to go to the bathroom (heck, I had to pay protection money just to stay alive). Jesse never responds even though his athletic build indicates that he would more than hold his own in a fight. His home life offers no solace either.  

His parents heap a lot of attention on his four sisters and either ignore Jesse or constantly yell at him. Only his music teacher (Zooey Deschanel) in the rural school recognizes his talent and takes him to an art museum. Why the teachers do not caution the bullies or try to stop their actions is unclear. Attempting to show off his running skills, Jesse enters a racing competition but is beaten by Leslie Burke (AnnaSophia Robb), a new girl in his class who has moved next door to him. In spite of her good looks and bubbly personality, Leslie’s tomboyishness and ability as a writer keep her on the outside looking in and the two form a tentative friendship based on mutual need.  

Leslie's parents are free-spirited writers who are absorbed in their work, leaving Leslie and Jesse to spend their after school hours in imaginative play where they create a world called Terabithia in the forest that surrounds their home. In Terabithia, trees become giants, squirrels turn into beasts, and Jesse and Leslie gain magical powers. Of course, they fight actual battles with attackers so the line between what is real and what is imagined is blurred and the film can straddle both worlds. Through his interaction with Leslie, however, Jesse begins to come out of his shell and develop some self confidence but a tragic turn compels him to use all of his new found strength just to stay afloat.  

The heart of the film of course is the friendship between the two pre-teens and its success depends on whether or not you believe that they are troubled outcasts eager to escape from the harsh reality of their world. Robb, however, with her perpetual smile and high energy never seems real in the role of a social misfit and Hutcherson has only a few expressions, most of which are variations of sullen and the two leads lack any discernible chemistry together. In spite of a few genuinely touching moments, Bridge to Terabithia never feels authentic - either as a fantasy or as a tale of friendship and loss.  


Howard Schumann
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