Bridge to Terabithia
2007Director: Gabor Csupo
Cast: Josh Hutcherson, Robert Patrick, Anna Sophia Robb
didn’t expect to find myself weeping big, proper tears before midday in a faceless chain multiplex because of a Disney kids’ film, but Bridge to Terabithia, debut feature from Rugrats co-creator Gabor Csupo, had just that effect on me. As utterly improbable as that might seem.
Marketing the film as some kind of sub-Eragon fantasy adventure, the people in the business suits behind Terabithia seem to have missed the point by a galactic distance; what they had on their hands wasn’t a CGI-driven Narnia coat-tailer, but rather a deeply powerful sister to the likes of Pan’s Labyrinth—a film about children rather than for children. There were kids in the cinema when I saw it, but neither they nor their parents seemed to leave the theatre as red-eyed and flabbergasted as I.
As far as the kids go, this is probably because the early-adolescent mix of identity-seeking, social exclusion and other-world escapism that embodies the film is of the kind best identified retrospectively. Their parents, on the other hand, are perhaps distanced from immersion alongside the main characters by the remove that parenthood itself necessarily forces upon one; when you have kids of your own, children are no longer to be identified with, but rather provided for, protected, educated, observed. As such Terabithia, not quite coming-of-age drama, not quite fantasy adventure, not quite feel-good family film, is likely to be missed by the audience most likely to enjoy it: adults without children of their own.
The story is the stuff of Disney films immemorial; shy, bullied, artistic boy (Hutcherson) with troubled family meets newly-arrived tomboyish girl (Robb) with sense of adventure and fantasy. Jesse, the boy, feels alienated from a harassed but dutiful father (Patrick), a mother we suspect may be burdened by depression, and a clutter of sisters either too old or too young to keep him company. Lesley, the girl, suffers from parents caught up in their own imaginations just as much as she is, potentially to the detriment of her well-being; the splashes of magnificent, loving colour in their relationship (dancing, painting, overwhelming affection) are broken up by so much self-absorbed grey space that she too is lonely.
Together the children deliberately create a fantasy world in the forest that envelops their homes, peopling it with mysterious dark powers and creatures concocted from the everyday bullies and troubles that beset them. It is Lesley who instigates this feverish escapism, and we, like Jesse, are initially hesitant as to whether to enter it or not; circumstance and magic soon strips cynicism though, and we tumble together into the kingdom of Terabithia until a tragic halt to the tale shocks us to reality and back again.
The flights of fantasy that have been the erroneous selling point of the film are classily underplayed by Csupo; more important in the children’s lives are the mundanity and discomfort of the school bus, the flashes of pleasure brought by an enthusiastic music teacher (an alluringly sharp and benevolent Zooey Deschanel), the vague and discomfiting image of parents perpetually poring over calculators and balance sheets, unable to afford new sneakers for their offspring. As important as adults are to Jesse and Lesley, they are necessarily seen as distant and unformed, but by the end of the film they are (almost) all painted with just enough shades to make them real characters—the strict teacher’s humanity revealed, the distant father’s affections made clear—suggesting that Csupo has as deft a touch with his actors as with his imagination.
There are problems, of course; I wish the picture had been completely, rather than just largely, shorn of the typical Disney Kids' Film signifiers—the schmaltzy bits of score and soundtrack touches, for instance, make you occasionally uncomfortably aware that YOU ARE WATCHING AN EMOTIONALLY MANIPULATIVE AND CHEESY SATURDAY MORNING KIDS FILM. The intrusion of these signifiers perhaps keeps Terabithia from being quite as good as Gabriele Salvatores’ Io Non Ho Paura or the aforementioned Pan's Labyrinth; although, clearly, both of those films benefit from the remove that linguistic and cultural distance affords.
Still, the emotional punch that Terabithia packs in its final third is so potentially overwhelming that, if you’ve given yourself over to the world Lesley and Jesse compose with their powerfully young friendship, it can easily transcend the associations that might otherwise drag it down. Despite clear visual clues and a sense that at some point something dreadful must happen for the film to have any point, the two young leads and their environments, real and imagined, are so compellingly illustrated that by the time the static tempest arrives one is stricken by very real grief, and, like the characters, surfs through the denouement on bleary-eyed momentum. Bridge to Terabithia, for all its familiar trappings, is a very rare and moving thing.
Bridge to Terabithia is currently playing in wide release in the UK, and will be released on DVD in the US on June 19.