Bridge to Terabithia

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 02/27/07 19:29:41

"Next time, imagine it's a better movie."
1 stars (Sucks)

As a father, a writer, and a lover of the imagination, I’d think I’d be all over “Bridge to Terabithia,” director Gabor Csupo’s big screen adaptation of Katherine Paterson’s children’s novel, a story that celebrates the magic of imagination. And yet there’s not a single minute of this movie that I liked, let alone admired. This is a horrible little movie, stupid and clunky and obnoxious through and through.

I have never read Paterson’s book, although my wife and daughter inform me the screenplay - penned by David Paterson (Katherine’s son) and Jeff Stockwell - sticks fairly close to the source material. In this case, the novel is as much to blame as the movie itself for all the terribleness on display here. The characters are cheap and hackneyed, their situations even more so, and there’s a vital third act plot point that smacks of storytelling desperation. (That this plot point was inspired by a real event in Paterson’s life does not diminish the fact that it still reeks of shoddy manipulation, thanks to the way it’s presented and the events surrounding it.)

Worse, then, is the sloppy direction that brings it all to life. Granted, the performances are decent enough, but such young talent is wasted through all this hokey, stumbling presentation. Here’s a movie that, depending on your point of view, is either too stupid or too lazy (or both), resulting in multiple let’s-have-a-great-time-fixing-up-the-place montages. Never mind the ridiculousness of having a couple of grade schoolers building a treehouse that would put professional carpenters to shame, or of having one character’s parents turning the chore of painting the living room into a funky dance party. These montages, set to a hipster soundtrack, are so corny and hackneyed that one half expects to see Sylvester Stallone somewhere in the background, training for the big fight.

The story, bursting with potential, stumbles with every scene. Jesse (Josh Hutcherson) is the neglected middle child in a family that’s barely scraping by; he dreams of being the best runner at school, but he’s stuck wearing his sister’s pink hand-me-down tennis shoes. (Oddly, for every comment about the family’s financial woes, we get shots that reveal satellite TV and other conveniences that any actual struggling family would have given up in order to afford clothing.) Leslie (AnnaSophia Robb), an alterna-rebel with the punk-chic outfits, has just moved in next door; her parents are hippie writers with oodles of cash but little time to spend with their daughter, unless the plot calls for it.

The two kids become friends and take to exploring the woods behind their houses. Because Leslie is the child of hippie writers, she naturally has a better imagination than other kids - not like poor Jesse, whose grumpy dad (Robert Patrick at his grumpiest) tells him how art is a waste of time. Ah, but Leslie’s free-wheeling ways opens up Jesse’s mind and brings out the creativity hidden within. After building a mammoth tree fort, they whip up tales of the fantasy land of Terabithia.

And here’s where the movie really goes off track. It’s one thing to have a coming-of-age drama overloaded with all the wrong clichés (the gruff parent who just doesn’t understand; the bully with powers of persuasion far beyond mere mortals; the sympathetic grown-up - in this case, Zooey Deschanel as a music teacher who teaches the class how to sing groovy classic rock; and, in the movie’s most laughable offense, a classroom that, despite being in the whitest, most rural part of the entire nation, is made up like a Benetton ad - all that was missing was a kid in full Indian Chief headdress), but the ensuing mixture of drama and fantasy fails over and over again. You see, as Jesse and Leslie build their pretend world in their minds, we get to see their imaginations brought to life. Or maybe not, maybe their imaginations really have come to life - how else to explain Jesse being lifted by a troll and other such things? The film never explains where the line is drawn.

At which point many of you may be telling me to chill out, that the whole point of the story is that the children’s imaginations allow such an escape from their lousy lives, and such blurriness is not only necessary but wonderful. Humbug, I reply. “Terabithia” is ultimately too afraid of its own gimmick to commit one way or another. Either it is a true fantasy world into which the kids can escape, or it is a mere figment of their fertile imaginations. Here, it wants to be both, and the movie isn’t confident enough to follow through.

Curiously, somewhere around the middle of the thing, we’re tossed a clumsy theological debate. Leslie, having taken an interest in such things, accompanies Jesse’s family to church, her first encounter with religion; afterward, she, Jesse, and Jesse’s adorable-to-a-breaking-point little sister engage in a chat about Jesus and being damned to hell. The inclusion of such material does not surprise me, especially not these days, when religious themes are a dime a dozen.

What does surprise me is just how awkwardly and out of place the discussion is. There’s nothing that comes before that suggests this as the sort of thing these kids would make for heated conversation, and after the scene, the whole debate is quietly ignored - until, that is, the finale, when it’s conveniently brought up again. This implies that the scene is not an honest talk between curious children, but an ungainly set-up for a key sequence later on.

Worse, the debate - whether or not God will condemn you to eternal suffering if you don’t believe in Jesus - ultimately conflicts with the story’s main theme. Jesse is reminded to “keep an open mind about everything” throughout the movie, but all this church talk keeps hinting that the complete message is “keep an open mind about everything, as long as that open mind doesn’t conflict with believing in Jesus.”

Again, the film refuses to commit: it’s not a religious movie, it’s a movie with mild, random religious themes. Was the screenplay afraid to put off a larger audience if it enhanced the Christian angle? Was it afraid to remove such ultimately unnecessary scenes from the piece? The filmmakers want to appeal to a built-in Christian ticket buyers, but they’re worried about putting off everyone else. As a result, the movie trips all over itself in its efforts to handle both sides.

Oh, but even without this confused intrusion, this is one stupid, stupid movie, riddled with plot holes and hackneyed characters and some truly awful dialogue. It’s an obnoxious movie about obnoxious kids, and it hurts from the very first frame.

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