Thursday, September 29, 2011

Clyde’s Movie Palace: Bridge to Terabithia (2007)

Josh Hutcherson
AnnaSophia Robb
Zooey Deschenal
Robert Patrick
Bailee Madison
Lauren Clinton

Directed by Gabor Csupo

There are some films that my The Girlfriend just doesn’t have any interest in seeing. The list isn’t very long, but it is concrete. First and foremost on the list would be anything that she considers to be a “cartoon.” This list can include anything from Pinocchio to Shrek the Third. Occasionally she will break down and watch something like Beauty and the Beast or The Little Mermaid if I happen to be watching it, but she won’t go out of her way to do so. Any film that depends on a lot of CGI rendered special effects have also been dropped into this limbo like category.

For instance, because The Last Mimzy utilized these effects, she had no interest in viewing it. She watched the first Harry Potter film, and now he too has fallen into the “cartoon” cracks of The Girlfriend’s brain.  It’s not like I’m the biggest Harry Potter fan on the planet but at least I have seen the movies.

When Bridge to Terabithia arrived from Netflix about a week ago, she turned her nose up at it and shoved it aside. It seemed she had seen the preview of the film and that was enough to convince her. And the fact is, I too had seen that preview and originally had no intention of watching it either because if one decides to watch it based solely on that, you are given the impression that you are going to be watching a Narnia clone. It was a last minute addition to the top of my queue based on two things. The first was that after watching The Last Mimzy, a film I hadn’t expected to like but did, I decided to give this one a chance. The second thing that helped convince me is a comment I read on Flickr regarding this film. It was succinct and to the point.

“Holy Crap!” the comment began. Unfortunately that’s all I can tell you because the rest of the comment might be a major spoiler although there is a possibility that you may have read the book and already know what I’m talking about. If you want to know what the rest of the comment was, send me an email AFTER you have seen the movie. Suffice it to say though, it was not the kind of comment that one would associate with a fantasy film. And as it turned out, Bridge to Terabithia is about as far removed as one can get from being a fantasy film while keeping perhaps one foot in the baseball park, with on toe just barely crossing the foul line.

Eighth grader Jesse Arons (Josh Hutcherson) is having a rough time. His dad, Jesse Arons Sr. (Robert Patrick), ignores him completely unless he needs for Jess to do chores. On the other hand, between Jesse’s four sisters (that Jesse would just as soon trade in for a good dog), taking care of the house and the baby, Jesse’s mom is more than a little bit preoccupied. She is totally clueless to the needs of a boy entering his teen years, and  at the very beginning of the film she gives Jesse a pair of hand me down pink tennis shoes that belonged to his older sister and sees nothing at all wrong with it. This being on the day of a race that Jesse has been training for in the hopes of out running one of the school bullies.

Then there is Jesse’s younger sister May Belle (Bailee Madison), who worships the ground her older brother walks on. Unfortunately Jesse doesn’t grasp her hero worship choosing instead to show as little regard for May Belle as the rest of the family seems to have for him. It’s not that the family is totally dysfunctional, but they are presented in a realistic fashion in which just about anybody and everybody will be able to relate to. And if all of these problems weren’t enough for Jesse, he constantly has to deal with the school bullies, male and female alike. But in spite of all of this there is one good thing in Jesse’s life. He wants to be an artist someday and often immerses himself in the fantasy drawings he sketches in those few moments in his room that he has to himself.

On the same day that Jesse is to run his big race, a new girl comes to school. If Jesse is the odd boy out, we immediately peg Leslie Burke (AnnaSophia Robb) as the odd girl out. She not only wears the highest high top tennis shoes one could wear and still be able to run or walk in them, but they are adorned on the sides with the fanciest of fancy artwork. The rest of her outfit would make one believe that Leslie had just dropped in from a 1960’s commune, and the fact that her parents don’t believe in television or religion only serves to reinforce that notion.

Although Leslie at first tries her best to present an air of optimism, it is apparent from her demeanor that being the oddball is beginning to take its toll on her. She desperately needs a friend. Sensing that Jesse is in need of a friend as well,  Leslie does her best to win him over. At first Jesse sees her only as another problem in his life and someone to be avoided especially when he finishes second to her in the big race that he had trained for all summer.

Eventually Leslie begins to win Jesse over when she tells him that he is the best artist she has ever seen after she accidentally see’s his art work. Likewise, when Leslie stands in front of the classroom reading an essay on scuba diving, Jesse finds himself being drawn into her optimistic world of fantasy and adventure. Later, when Jesse saves Leslie from a thumping by an eighth grade girl bully, Janice Avery (Lauren Clinton), it is then that they start to develop a real camaraderie.

So it is that after school and whenever possible they spend their time together out in the woods that border their property. It is here where Leslie and Jesse come across an old rope hanging from a tree above a creek. It is their passport to the other side of the forest. When they cross the creek, they enter a land that is all their own. It is a land without parents whom ignore you, it is a land without school bullies, it is a land without taunting teenage sisters, it is a land of adventure, a land of fun, and a land where your mind can come alive and you can make it whatever your imagination desires it to be. It is Terabithia. And as Jesse’s friendship with Leslie grows, and as both his heart and his mind begins to open we sense something else in their eyes. We see respect, devotion, and an unspoken bond of love between them that can never be broken.

Despite what you may have seen in the trailers, the few minutes of CGI special effects used are just about all you are going to get in Bridge to Terabithia. When Jesse and Leslie swing across the creek to their special place, they do not enter some magically CGI rendered kingdom. When the special effects are used, they are used solely to show us how everything in their minds and in their special make believe world would appear to them if it were real. And only when Leslie convinces Jesse to open his mind to all possibilities does it come alive for both him and us.

The fact that Disney decided to promote this film as some sort of special effects extravaganza to capitalize on the success of Narnia, and (with the release of the DVD is still doing it) is what I consider not only one of the biggest marketing blunders in movie history  because what you  get from Bridge to Terabithia is a truly wonderful film about growing up, about relationships, about young kids coping with a difficult family life, and it’s about kids who appear to be as different as night and day becoming the best of friends and finding out they are not so different after all. It’s about not judging those around you too quickly because sometimes there are reasons for a person being the way they are.

After watching AnnaSophia Robb walk Zombiefied through The Reaping, I was totally knocked out by her wonderful and extraordinary performance in this film as Leslie. She has an uncanny ability to show us Leslie’s optimism, and yet we can see and feel the pain that she constantly tries to hide as she struggles to be accepted. It is for me, one of the best acting jobs by any young actress that I have seen of not only this year, but of many other years.

Likewise, Josh Hutcherson as Jesse, could easily have overplayed his character but he does not. Jesse only wants his father to show him that he cares about him, and at the very least for the rest of his family besides May Belle to acknowledge his existence. When Jesse treats Maybelle as the rest of his family treats him, he doesn’t try to sugar coat it and we cringe just as much because we hate what he does even while understanding why he does it.

Bailee Madison as May Belle is a revelation, and one pint size scene stealer. We can see the hurt in her when the brother she looks up to continually gives her the brush off. She can’t understand why Jesse can’t beat up the eighth grade girl who stole her twinkies.

Zoey Deschanel is the beautiful wide eyed school teacher that Jesse develops a crush on. It is only in her music class where the students actually seem to come alive and show some interest in their education. Lauren Clinton does a great job as the eighth grade bully Janice, who seems to be a composite of every bully you’ve ever met in life. Besides tormenting Jesse and Leslie, she stands outside the outdoor restroom during break forcing kids who want to use it to pay her a dollar. And yet, there is a lot more to Janice than meets the eye as you will soon discover.

Robert Patrick as Jesse’s father sometimes  makes us want to reach through the screen and knock some sense into him.   There are moments when we feel like he wants to reach out to Jesse, but openly showing affection  is something totally  foreign to him.  

And my hat also has to go off to Director Gabor Csupo who brings it all together and never let’s the fantasy elements overwhelm what is essentially a very simple story. And as if that isn’t enough, kudos also to Aaron Zigmon’s beautiful score that enhances the story but never overwhelms it. And Michael Chapman’s first rate cinematography does more to bring Terabithia to life than any special effects ever could.

Then there is the totally unexpected denouement of the film. I have to tell you that unless you have read the book or read other reviews of this film, there is a twist towards the end that will make your jaw drop. And that’s the only way I can put it without giving too much of it away. I can only say one thing, if you are not moved by this film, then there may not be too many movies out there that will move you at all.

So the only thing left to do is give a big thumbs down… Disney for the crappy and stupid way they marketed this excellent film. I loved this film and it will easily make my list of top ten favorite films this year. And if I know a movie is going to be on that list I have no choice but to give you my grade, and it is a very highly recommended A. Now close your eyes, then open your mind and your heart so that you too can visit The Bridge to Terabithia.

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