Child's Play
By Noel Vera

Bridge to Terabithia
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.

The fantasy, 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 into question.

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.

The filmmaking 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).

In "Heavenly 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]).

True, "Pan's 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.

The film's 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.

Hutcherson 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?

It's amazing, 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).

When Leslie (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, perhaps?

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.

Note: First published in Businessworld, 02/23/07.
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March 9, 2007