By Noel Vera
Dir: Gabor Csupo (2007)
There are a
lot of things the matter with "Bridge to Terabithia," Gabor Csupo's
adaptation of the Newberry Award-winning children's book by Katherine
Paterson, first and foremost being the trailer, which leads you
to expect a "Narnia" or "Lord of the Rings" type adventure - nothing
of that sort.
"Bridge" is about the friendship that develops between two lonely
youths, both 11 years old - Jesse, a boy trapped in a chaotic lower-middle-class
household with four other women and a seemingly uncaring father;
and Leslie, the only child of a pair of loving, well-to-do parents.
it's pretty much made clear here, is strictly in the children's
minds - no complex psychological or metaphysical questions posed,
no blurring of fiction and reality beyond what can easily be explained
by a parent to a child. This is no "Pan's Labyrinth," where the
fantasy takes on unsettling parallels with grim reality, even intruding
upon it at several points; no "Heavenly Creatures," where the lure
of fantasy for two girls is so strong their very sanity is thrown
This movie's fantasy is mostly by-the-numbers escapism, set against
a reality where - though some of the circumstances may be unpleasant,
even tragic - the people transcend said circumstances through persistent
strength of character and basic human decency.
in the fantasy sequences is strictly by-the-numbers as well. Unlike
what Guillermo del Toro accomplished in "Pan" the digital creatures
here have little heft or texture; they're shot full-on, in broad
daylight, and you can see how clearly artificial they are (paradoxically
it's when digital creations are in shadow [as they often are in
"Pan"] that they are most convincing).
Creatures" there's enough exuberance and style that the fantasy
seems like an extension of the girls' burgeoning imaginations -
Jackson often shoots them running forward, the digital effects sprouting
and blooming before them, giving the impression that they are literally
making up the world as they go along (in Csupo's picture the transition
isn't as fluid, or exciting); more, the leap into fantasy can happen
anywhere, at any time (in Csupo's, the worlds are more clearly delineated
- you need to cross the creek to get into Terabithia [a term, incidentally,
that Paterson possibly took it from C.S. Lewis, who in turn borrowed
it from the Bible]).
Labyrinth" and "Heavenly Creatures" are not meant for children -
or at least I wouldn't recommend showing them to children without
thorough guidance - but even, say, a child-friendly film like Hayao
Miyazaki's "Spirited Away" has its share of strangeness (the train
running over water, the mud spirit with a bicycle handle sticking
out of its side) and unsettling imagery (the parents turned into
pigs; the voraciously hungry No-Face).
If the make-believe in "Terabithia" seems ultimately innocuous in
comparison, it might help to remember that in the film's story the
fantasy is a product of two young minds, not a sophisticated adult
evoking his younger self - then the blandness becomes more understandable
(Paterson is staying true to what an 11-year-old might dream up),
even perhaps forgivable.
emotional center, of course, is the young boy Jesse. As Josh Hutcherson
plays him and Csupo directs him, he's hardly your run-of-the-mill
child protagonist - there's a hardness to him, a sullen and unattractive
angularity that sets him apart, makes him believable as a loner
and outcast (I much prefer him to Elijah Wood, who with his relentlessly
baby-blue eyes can only play suffering victim in the "Lord of the
Rings" movies). Sullen and angular he may be, but in his loneliness
he's also learned to be a listener; when his parents talk of money
matters, he can't help but overhear, and the undercurrent of financial
tension only adds to his sense of unease.
also does fine work opposite Robert Patrick as Jack, Jesse's father
- Patrick, best remembered for playing the shape-shifting Terminator,
uses his naturally impassive face to suggest all kinds of ambiguities:
is Jack aloof, uncaring? Does he play favorites among his kids?
Is there some reason why he refuses to give his only son a kind
word, a sign of tenderness? Is all this just the normal confusion
that occurs between a boy and the father that wants to raise him
to be a man (only thanks to a pesky sense of machismo the father
can't be matte about it), or is there something more - involving
the money problems, perhaps?
considering how trailers were full of cheesy CGI effects work, that
the picture focuses on and succeeds in conveying much of the subtext
between a boy and his father - I'm tempted to give all the credit
to Paterson's original novel, but of course Csupo had to direct
the actors and try capture the novel's understated emotional tone.
I'd also credit Paterson (with Csupo translating) for the way middle-school
life is so vividly evoked, with its accepted cruelties (running
feet tripped over, hapless bystanders shoved aside) and casual injustices
(bullies collecting a fee for entry into the public restroom) -
at one point a small revolt is staged, heading towards the restroom,
but it quickly peters out (in Hollywood children's films nowadays,
the revolt would have succeeded).
(AnnaSophia Robb, pretty enough with short blonde hair and a level-headed
gaze) enters Jesse's life and starts introducing him to the wonders
of an overactive imagination, you might actually resent the intrusion
of special effects - the spell of Paterson's voice, her delicate
way with familial relationships, her startlingly honest depiction
of American schoolyard society (she's had to defend her books from
more conservative Christian readers because of the occasional frankness
of her children's language) is such that you want less of the former,
more of the latter (Csupo's execution of said digital effects doesn't
help matters). You wonder: couldn't Terabithia have been sketched
in in a more minimalist manner - extensive use of sound and floor
effects, some artful camera moves, a magical coincidence or two,
But we can
only judge the movie we have before us It's not negligible, fortunately,
thanks to Paterson, Hutcherson, Patrick, and (to some extent) Csupo;
at times it's even surprisingly moving. And it has a distinctive
view of the world - cruel sometimes, desolate sometimes, even tragic
- but never irredeemably so.
First published in Businessworld, 02/23/07.
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