Sunday, February 25, 2007

Willing to Settle? Bridge to Terabithia, the Movie

In my post of February 16, (In a Theatre Near You...), I wondered aloud if the film version of A Bridge to Terabithia would live up to the art of the Newbery Award novel. I saw the movie today with my eleven-year-old granddaughter, and the answer is, sadly, no.

There is much about the film to like. The actors who portray Jesse Arons and Leslie Burke are very good, and the supporting cast is more than able. The portrayal of Jesse as an artistic but unnoticed middle child, bullied and harried at school, is straightforward and unsentimental, and Leslie is shown as a bright, imaginative, and empathetic newcomer who beats Jesse in a foot race and leads him to the fantasy world of Terebithia as effortlessly as she introduces him to her literary parents.

What seems jarringly wrong about the film is the introduction of computer-generated characters to represent the fantasy foes the children imagine inside Terabithia. Squirrels morph into bizarre chained-draped monsters, and crows become vulture-like harpies which chase and maul Jess and Leslie in the forest. In a segment which made me wince, Jess falls from their embattled tree house and is caught by the giant loamy hand of a tree troll, who places him gently on the earth.

Thinking I might be the only one bothered by these scenes, I looked up some reviews. I'm not. In Ty Burr's review in The Boston Globe he says,

Bridge to Terabithia is an ungainly, sometimes off-putting fusion of rural tweenhood and computer-generated fantasy.

A WalMart Middle Earth.

Jess and Leslie deserve better.

I know. I know. Fantasy action which takes place inside the characters' heads is hard to represent in film. Watching two kids shadow fight with invisible foes doesn't make for exciting movie action. The movie Chronicles of Narnia set the bar for fantasy spectacle. I know. Nonetheless, these segments just don't feel right within the flow of the story. As reviewer Melinda Ennis aptly put it, the computer foes "look like rejects from one of Jackson's Hobbit films."

I really hate to knock Walden Media, because they are one of the few film makers who attempt to make movies from quality children's novels such as Because of Winn-Dixie, Hoot, and Holes. Nonetheless, such novels have strong story lines that need no Hollywood cutesiness, gizmos, or sight gags to sweeten the mix.

But this is a story about two isolated people who connect as friends, and one of them dies. Leslie dies in a sudden and meaningless tragedy, and Jess has to find his way to some peace with himself for not being there, for not keeping the tragedy from happening. In the novel he passes the way into Terabithia on to his little sister Maybelle as a tribute to Leslie, and we know Jess is going to be all right.

If the film had ended that way, I might have seen the CGI elements in the midsection as perhaps an acceptable cinematic device. But it ends as Jess escorts May Belle across the bridge with the earthy troll and the mega-munchkins of Terabithia waving and beckoning, and oh, yeah, crowns popping onto their heads most magically. I'm reminded of the old commercial where the football player scores the winning TD and says, "NOW I'm going to DISNEYWORLD!!"

It would have been enough if the movie just ended with Jess leading May Belle across the bridge to Terabithia. It would have been enough just to know that the value of imagination and the power of friendship abide.

Maybe if a child hasn't read the book it's worth the price of a ticket to see the main story line, which states this theme admirably.

But, hey, that's just me. I'd like to hear what you all think.

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  • *sigh* How about a "Spoiler Alert" next time...

    By Blogger Nihimon, at 10:00 AM  

  • I am sympathetic to your complaint, and I prefer subtlety to what was done in the movie. I have to say that I haven't read the book yet, which may be the best way to see the movie.

    I was too interested in the story and characters to worry too much about the CGI. I thought it was too realistic and was never sure if it was supposed to be real or not, thanks to Disney's advertising. Before I understood that Terabithia wasn't the story, I was waiting for them to go further back in the woods and fall down a rabbit hole.

    But I really enjoyed it, and I can't fault it anywhere but with the CGI. I thought that the CGI at the end was overdone, but it is what the young sister might imagine, less subtle than what the older kids saw.

    I loved the movie -- but I hope Walden finds a different partner. I'm not a Disney fan.

    By Blogger John Webb, at 10:53 AM  

  • The animation was true to the story; they weren't just two kids pretending, but two kids in a shared fantasy. Also, let's face it, without the 'Hollywood' effects, the audience for a sad movie about a young friends death would have been smaller.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:05 AM  

  • I liked the movie, but agree that the fantastic elements were not quite right. Ironically, I thought the ambiguity in the book (whether Terabithia was purely in their heads or really accessible in a Narnia way) was resolved in the movie in favor of "in their heads," despite the over-the-top ending. I seem to recall that in the book, more time was spent in Terabithia and less on school issues.

    My chief concern, though, was how many people are taking their six-year-old to this movie expecting a rollicking fantasy rather than a meditation on one's first exposure to death and loss. I wouldn't take a kid under ten or twelve without first explaining to them that it has very sad parts. The 12-year-old I saw it with was OK afterward, but subdued and dwelling on some things he was reluctant to discuss.

    Re "spoiler alert": It's a movie review; spoilers come with the territory.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:26 PM  

  • post attempt #2

    This is interesting. I am seeing the same response pattern to BtT as I did to "Titanic".

    People responded to the latter in two ways: they saw it as a beautiful romantic film interrupted by the ship sinking (women, mostly) or as a cool disaster film with 90 minutes of ho-hum sappiness in the way (men, mainly).

    Here, we see people complaining about the CGI as an unnecessary add-on. But the couple I saw the film with, said that they were wondering where the CGI was?

    That was IMO due to the fact that the movie promos made it look like a "Narnia" knockoff. I too was misled; I kept expecting that Jess would start to draw Leslie's vision and thereby "create" Terabithia, wherein they would have a Narnia style adventure, replete with CGI. It's the worst example of mispromoting a movie I've seen. I was about halfway into the movie, wondering just how long it was going to be, when I realized that the relationship between Jess and Leslie *was* the story.

    Once that happened, I was not disappointed at all, but very pleasantly surprised. I found the story very intense (due in part to certain commonalities between Jess and myself), and while I noticed many small flaws in the writing and story flow, none of them nor the CGI bothered me much.

    That's probably due to the fact that I've not read the book, however. In my experience, recent reading of the book interferes with my ability to enjoy the movie, usually in a negative way (e.g. "Harry Potter"). Instead of finding the movie wanting, I get to read the book and get a much more fleshed-out story.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:53 PM  

  • I was dragged to see it by my 8- and 12-year-old boys, expecting a Narnia-like fantasy adventure for 2 hours. I was absolutely floored by Leslie's death, and spent the rest of the movie crying. The CGI was a bit much, and the promos definitely qualified as false advertising. This is a kids' movie? From a kids' book? I was raised on Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries, and they were nothing like this!

    Ironically, my 8-year-old was the only one of us who had read the book (in class, no less), so was perfectly fine with the whole thing...

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:54 PM  

  • We saw the movie based on the previews, and expected a second-rate Narnia/LOTR/Harry Potter knockoff. Halfway through, we were thinking, a little Judy Blume, but okay, we can ride along with that. Then BAM. One second I'm joking about the teacher being brought up on charges of inappropriate conduct, the next the theme of the movie becomes "Hi, kids! Sometimes death is senseless, utterly undeserved, and completely random and unpredictable. Have a nice day!!"

    A massive case of deceptive advertising. On the other hand, I wouldn't have gone to see it if the trailers had been remotely accurate.

    By Blogger John Bragg, at 4:29 PM  

  • Dear Anonymous 3:54 p.m.,
    I'm amazed that your childhood reading was Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew! Not that everyone shouldn't read those, but you missed a lot! Judging from your son's age, I'm guessing that you made it through one of the "golden ages" of children's lit without reading Paterson, Hamilton, Lowry, Naylor, Cleary, and many many more. Maybe your 8-year-old will share some books with you. He'd probably love it!

    It's also interesting that, having read the book as a novel study (awesome third grade class), he accepted Leslie's death with equanimity! That shows what a writer Katherine Paterson is, I think. Send his teacher a nice note!

    By Blogger GTC, at 4:29 PM  

  • Thanks for the excellent review and commentary!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:44 PM  

  • Just not what i expected at all. Good for what it was, but not for what they sold. I sat there with my mouth open when they killed the main girl. I think I was more traumatized than my daughter. I was apalled at how they marketed this movie. The following day we went to see The Astronaut Farmer, a flick they were saying was “family”. I was hesitant, but from the reviews I read they weren’t any hidden agendas. I loved it and now I’m spreading the word as far as I can. This is a movie that everyone kid should see– as well as their mother and father. It will leave you smiling and optimistic about the world we live in. families shouldn't hav eto be manipulated to see family movies.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:03 PM  

  • Dear Anonymous 2:03 p.m.,
    I'm sorry--not that Katherine Paterson wrote an honest and serious novel out of her own child's sad experience, but that Disney/Walden tried to market it as a faux fantasy fluff flick.
    Children need good literature that "holds the mirror up" to real life. If a movie leads them to the author's work, well, great. But to lead them to expect some dungeons & dragons action figures warring in the woods--that's just WRONG! The book left me, at least, optimistic about the resiliency of human nature. The movie just smarmed up the ending and left me cold.
    By trying to deliver both, the film turned out to be neither fish nor fowl, and that's too bad.
    Thank you for your insightful comments. I hope someone at Walden Media reads what you said!

    By Blogger GTC, at 4:10 PM  

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