Sunday, June 17, 2007

Fantastic New Family Film!
Bridge to Terabithia is a haunting story that stays with the reader of the book by Katherine Paterson or the viewer of this movie for the rest of his life. Centered around two characters, a sixth grader boy and girl, who don’t fit in anywhere, the story unfolds gracefully and draws the audience in close. The novel, and the movie, feature themes about family, friendship, dreams, and loss that will resonate for everyone no matter where they grew up or in what situation.

I liked how the film set up the family, how they introduced Jess Aarons (played by Josh Hutcherson) and showed what his world was like before it got changed by Leslie. The Blu-ray edition has crisp clean pictures that show the rundown farmhouse and rural area where Jess lives. There are several good visual touches throughout the film, like the clutter in the family greenhouse. The high-def presentation is so sharp it looks like you can step into the picture.

In just a few moments of showing Jess running cross country and at the breakfast table with his siblings, the viewer gets the idea that Jess is totally lost within the family. Every scene is marked by his fear, pain, and anger. I could see that Jess was dwindling down, become smaller and smaller, till he was barely taking up any room in the world. You can’t help but feel for a kid like this. Hutcherson portrayed Jess to a T. My wife teaches elementary school and I coach little league baseball. We’ve both seen kids like Jess and it’s heartrending.

Jess has always been a dreamer. His family is blue collar and his father (Robert Patrick) and mother are hardworking parents with five children. The family barely gets by. Even buying a new pair of tennis shoes is beyond their financial means. Jess feels guilty for being a problem to them, and that shows on his face. (Hutcherson is a fantastic physical actor.) He’s stuck in a world that doesn’t work and he doesn’t know what to do about it.

All his life, Jess has wanted to be an artist. He works in pencil, color pencil, and crayon because that’s all he has. He has a notebook full of drawings that he’s obviously carried for some time. His father doesn’t understand him and wishes Jess would stop daydreaming and get his head out of the clouds.

These are things that every kid and every parent who’s ever been a kid has been through. Katherine Paterson’s novel was published in 1977, so has now been around for 30 years as of this year. These problems between parents and children still exist, and so do the misunderstandings. I like stories that hit on truths that are widespread. That’s why this story rings so true for me.

With four younger and older sisters at home, and his mother constantly tired from running the household, Jess doesn’t have anyone at home to talk to either. The closest one who comes to understanding him is his younger sister May Belle (played by Bailee Madison), but she gets into his stuff and draws in his book. She invades his privacy and he tries to keep her out. However, she looks up to him like he’s some kind of hero.

Things in school are just as bad for Jess. He has two enemies, Gary Fulcher and Scott Hoager, who make his life miserable in class and around the school campus. He’s even got “Monster Mouth” Myers as his teacher and she doesn’t appear to care for him. The highlight, though, is the music teacher, Miss Edmunds (Zooey Deschanel). The young teacher becomes Jess’s first crush and he doesn’t know what to do about that either.

I could empathize with all of these things. I’ve been through them. And that’s part of the magic of Katherine Paterson’s book and this new movie. You totally get where the characters are coming from and what they have to confront in order to become more whole.

When Leslie Burke (AnnaSophia Robb) steps on stage in the movie, you know that things are about to take a decidedly different change. The animosity between Jess and Leslie is real, and it’s based in the right emotional context. They don’t care for each other because they’re boys and girls, and boys and girls aren’t supposed to get along at that age. It’s embarrassing and icky.

Where Jess tends to be withdrawn, Leslie is positively a social butterfly. She excels at her work and quickly grabs the teacher’s attention. She also seems to be the only one who’s clued in to the fact that Jess is gaga over Miss Edmonds. She teases him about it in a good way, but of course Jess isn’t pleased. It’s the small quiet nuances between the characters – just little riffs of dialogue and looks they exchange – that really bring them to life for me. They’re real, and that makes the story more real.

Later, when Leslie outruns Jess after he’s finally able to beat his arch-nemesis, things really get off to a rocky start between them. We also get introduced to Janice, the eighth grade bully who charges smaller kids a dollar to use the bathroom during recess and lunch. Janice becomes an integral figure to the story and provides some pivotal scenes later. Again, this movie is absolutely wonderful in the way it handles character and the changes that happen within and to character.

Thrown together because no one else will have them, Jess and Leslie go exploring and find a rope swing over a stream. Every kid who’s ever lived out in the country knows exactly what it’s like to see something like that and not be able to walk away from it. You just have to swing across.

On the other side, Leslie declares this unexplored part of the forest to be a new land filled with magical creatures and terrifying monsters. But, she says, in Terabithia no one can crush them. They’re faster, smarter, and braver than they are in the real world.

The movie took some negative reaction when it debuted in theaters. The trailers (and the DVD covers) obviously show a mythical fantasyland much like Harry Potter and Narnia. Some families went to see the movie expecting to see a fantasy story. The trailer and the DVD covers are misleading, but the movie is a joy.

Make no mistake, Bridge to Terabithia is firmly grounded in the real world. The fantastic creatures that are shown in the trailers and on the DVD covers are a very small part of the movie. And they’re not even real. Except as allegory for things that are going on in Jess and Leslie’s lives.

I loved the movie. It hurt, but I loved it. All the relationships that you see in this movie are true. They all happen every day. Yet the way Katherine Paterson and the movie manage to bring those relationships to life on the page and on the screen is simply amazing. This is a good family movie, but I would offer a warning about showing it to be any of the kids who are really young. There’s some really strong emotion involved that you won’t know about unless you’ve read the book, and it’s hard to tell you what it is without giving away too much.

The Blu-ray disc features the movie in brilliant color and sharpness in 1080p high definition and widescreen (1.85:1). If you have a surround sound system, the movie sound is absolutely fantastic in uncompressed 5.1 surround sound.

Bridge to Terabithia belongs in the family entertainment shelves. It’s a great movie, with great actors, and a fantastic story to share.

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