Tomorrow night is the night of the Eurovision Song Contest, where the most bizarre, unpredictable or just downright crap singer each country can produce sings a terrible song about world peace or brotherhood or some other horseshit, and then all the countries vote for their friends to win. All of this is broadcast here in the UK accompanied by the dulcet tones of Terry Wogan Jr. as he gently ridicules each act with less class and less humour than his illustrious forefather carried around in each finger. I’m going to a Eurovision party tomorrow. This will include much booze and maybe even the odd spot of ridicule as well. But anyway, here’s today’s flick.
It’s mostly a rope swing.
11-year-old Jesse is an outcast, both at home and at school. He’s the middle child of five, and the only boy, and has never fitted in anywhere. Leslie is the new girl in class and Jesse’s neighbour. She is just as alone as he is, and the two find themselves becoming best friends. Exploring the wild country near their homes, they discover an abandoned tree house around which their imaginations conjure a magical land Leslie names Terabithia. In Terabithia they are strong and powerful, but will real life get in the way? Let’s say yes.
I saw the title, I saw the cover art, I saw the trailer, and I thought I knew what this film was going to be about: a couple of cute and hopefully-not-too-annoying kids find a magical kingdom that they have to rescue in some way and there’s going to be a big battle at the end and everyone will live happily ever after. Lordy, was I wrong. This may be one of the sweetest and most affecting films about childhood and those awkward pre-teen years I have seen in a very long time. It’s an assured live-action debut from animation director Gabor Csupo (Rugrats), and his two leads, AnnaSophia Robb and Josh Hutcherson, are both totally engaging as the youngsters.
The screenplay was co-written by David Paterson, son of the original novel’s author Katherine. The film takes on a bit of an autobiographical cast when you hear that the main plot point was based on a real event that happened to a friend of David’s when they were 8. Katherine actually wrote the book as a way to help her come to terms with what had taken place. I haven’t read the book so I can’t tell you how the screenplay stacks up against it, but as its own thing it is a very well-written piece of work. Despite the sometimes potentially troubling subject matter, the film has a light touch. It could very easily have become mawkish (a lot) but everything we see is filtered through our young protagonists. This, combined with a welcome lack of clumsy exposition, keeps the story moving. Serious events are treated seriously but still matter-of-factly, without any great wailing or gnashing of teeth.
Robb and Hutcherson are both great as Leslie and Jess. You never doubt for a second that these are real kids. As written, Leslie could easily have been a very flat character; she doesn’t really have much in the way of growth or development, but Robb has such an expressive face and brings an infectious warmth to Leslie that really makes her fly off the page. Jess is the one with more of an arc and Hutcherson sells this with style. It is no surprise that both have gone on to bigger things: AnnaSophia has nabbed the part of young Carrie in a prequel series to my most hated film of the year so far, while Josh was in this year’s second biggest movie. Something about missing dinner I think, and playing a game…
Among the rest of the cast, I’d feel bad if I didn’t mention Robert Patrick. The former killing machine plays Jess’ father as a man burdened by some heavy loads. He seems distant, but he obviously loves his son, and the rest of his family, very much. Zooey Deschanel is the world’s cutest music teacher, whose classes involve her playing some Steve Earle songs on her guitar while all the kids sing along, with tambourines. Damn, that seems like so much more fun than my school music class. Bailee Madison, who plays Jess’ younger sister Maybelle, skirts very close to annoying and very nearly falls over that line on a few occasions but in the end is shown to be just a little girl who idolises her big brother.
Despite all initial evidence to the contrary, what seems like a full-on fantasy film is actually grounded in a reality that becomes all too difficult at times. There are universal themes here that aren’t usually touched on in kids’ films these days; themes like friendship, that innocent first love, how an abusive home life can turn someone into a bully, even the loss of a loved one. But Bridge To Terabithia is mostly about the power of imagination and how that imagination can affect your real life for the better. That’s what the title refers to. The Bridge is Jess and Leslie’s imagination. That is what takes them to that other. It is all of this that I think betrays he 70s-era vintage of the novel, in a good way.
There are a couple of things that don’t spoil the film necessarily but are enough to keep it from being excellent. The score is solid, but is drowned out by a typical Disney cavalcade of soppy songs, including an obligatory effort by the leading lady. Even after only a couple of hours, Aaron Zigman’s music is fading in my memory and that is only because of the preponderance of inappropriate pop songs. This flick deserves better than that. Alright, I know I said there were a couple of things but I’m having trouble thinking of any more right now. Let’s just call it a night there, shall we?
And the trailer was bullshit by the way. Probably the most ill-judged and misleading trailer for a kids’ film ever.