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Bridge To Terabithia (2006)
Director: Gabor Csupo
review by Barbara Davies
Life is hard for country boy Jess Aarons (Josh Hutcherson). At school he's the target of bullies, and his home life isn't a walk in the park. Jess' parents are stressed out just trying to put food on the table, and with four sisters he often feels left out. Drawing is his one consolation, but his blue-collar Dad (Robert Patrick) doesn't think much of art or artists. Then, into Jess' life comes his new neighbour, Leslie Burke (AnnaSophia Robb).
Though their relationship gets off to a rocky start, and Leslie too falls foul of the bullies, the two children, though on the face of it very different, actually have a lot in common. They are both outsiders and both creative, and they soon become fast friends. It is Leslie who suggests that the woods nearby are part of the magical kingdom of Terabithia, ruled by the Dark Master, and inhabited by strange creatures, which, oddly enough, bear the faces of the three principal school bullies. Though it takes a while for Jess to get with the programme, he's soon imagining his own additions to the Kingdom. And we actually get to see Terabithia and its weird inhabitants courtesy of special effects by the WETA Workshop, who did the visual effects for The Lord Of The Rings trilogy. Jess' world is a brighter one with Leslie in it, even if she does beat him at running. But life has a way of springing nasty surprises on all of us. And Jess is no exception.
I hadn't read the award-winning children's novel by Katherine Paterson on which this is based, and so came to Bridge To Terabithia with no expectations other than: it's fantasy. To find it isn't fantasy, just children imagining things, was a disappointment, but the special effects are spectacular and I loved the giant troll. The school and its predatory bullies are too far-fetched though - would bullies really be able to get away with charging the younger kids a dollar to use the loo, day after day, and not a teacher in sight? I also didn't anticipate the tragic plot twist involving Leslie, or the film's abrupt change of tone two-thirds of the way through.
There's a happy ending of sorts, but I imagine some children will still find what happens distressing. And children are undoubtedly the target audience of this family film, which deals with friendship and self-esteem, making your own fun, the value of creativity and imagination, and grief. It's a shame the life lessons weren't imparted a little more subtly though - as though the director didn't trust his audience enough to 'get it' without saying things twice.
Young actors often have yet to acquire the skills of their more experienced colleagues, but Hutcherson (RV) and Robb (The Reaping) bring energy and conviction to their roles and make an engaging and attractive pair. Patrick (Flags Of Our Fathers, Terminator 2) adds gravity and depth to the rather sketchy part of Jess' dad. Bailee Madison (Jess' younger sister May Belle) shows an impressive emotional range for one so young that she couldn't even read when filming started. And Zooey Deschanel manages to brings the rather one-dimensional music teacher Ms Edmunds to life, but it's difficult not to wince in these less innocent times when her character invites Jess to go on a field trip with her all on his own.
DVD extras: there are plenty of extras to keep all ages entertained. Two audio commentaries, one by the cast, one by the crew, provide insights into the film and filming process. There's a six-minute featurette on the special effects with cast, crew, and members of the WETA Workshop. The book itself comes under scrutiny in a 14-minute featurette that includes an intriguing interview with Katherine Paterson herself, and, less successfully, as they are almost certainly reading more into the book than is actually there, opinion from several librarians and schoolteachers. Music is present in the form of a three-minute music video of AnnaSophia Robb singing Keep Your Mind Wide Open. Budding young artists will find sketching tips and the results of the recent Bridge To Terabithia art competition. There's also a quest map, but you have to find several items (such as a sword) hidden among the menus before it will allow you to access it... and I never could!
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