Before you roll your eyes to heaven and groan in frustration at yet another uninspired “Lord of the Rings” rip-off, marketed as a thrilling ride of excitement and adventure but really little more than cheap trash, give this adaption of Katherine Paterson’s much loved novel a chance. The film has indeed been a somewhat unfortunate victim of fantasy stereotyping, dismissed as yet another attempt to pick up on the post-Middle-Earth hype by fantasy hardcores, as children’s fare by others, a viewpoint not helped by the fact that it was picked up and marketed by Disney. It’s a huge shame because “Bridge to Terabithia” is as much an adult film as a kids movie – perhaps more so, dealing with some very mature themes yet still enthralling it’s audience in a fantasy world quite different to anything else we’ve seen. In this alone it can easily outdo the likes of “Narnia”, never mind that shambles calling itself “Eragon”.
Jess Aarons (Josh Hutcherson) is seemingly neglected by his struggling family and bullied at school. A change occurs with the arrival of the eccentric Leslie (AnnaSophia Robb) in his class and despite their differences the bonds of friendship are quick to grow. Together they create and rule over a fantasy world named Terabithia in the local forest that allows them to escape from their more worldly problems. This new-found freedom influences Jess positively: his artistic talents begin to flower as does his confidence to oppose the school bullies. Only his troubled father (played by Robert Patrick) remains distant and out of reach. A “Heavenly Creatures” this certainly ain’t but you had better bring a packet of tissues because a tragic twist in the final act is heartbreaking. Ultimately however the film’s message is one of hope, love, resilience, moving on and new beginnings.
The film’s main assets are to be found in Josh Hutcherson and AnnaSophia Robb. Too often a good film is ruined or very poignant scenes undermined by children who are just not able to deliver in poignant or troubling moments. Take Jake Lloyd in “The Phantom Menace” for example or Robb herself, playing that irritating creature in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”. Fans of the book may rest assured that this film suffers no such problems. Hutcherson in particular stands out with his very mature performance, portraying both awe and great loss expertly. This is definitely a name that will have to be watched in the future. Given the right opportunities, he could very well be one of the major stars of tomorrow. Robb one the other hand displays a captivating charm and thankfully never lets it get ‘too weird’ – In short she’s a perfect casting choice for the role. While the adult cast is placed firmly in the shadow the performances of Robert Patrick and Zooey Deschanel do deserve a mention. They too know that this is the kids’ show and do well to fit around them.
Terabithia itself is wonderfully and fantastically realised, thanks to excellent visual effects provided by WETA and New Zealand landscapes (the country, it seems still has wonderful locations left over for fantasy films to shoot…). Like “Lord of the Rings”, director Gabor Csupo makes sure the fantasy world remains rooted in reality and his animation background pays off for the realisation of Terabithia’s many creatures. From fighting squirrels to a certain troll, they are all lovingly realised, many more from the book only making a brief appearance in the opening and closing credits. It is understood that the children’s tale is far more important than the visual spectacle and thus the effects are subtly achieved. Only in the final epilogue scenes the magical kingdom grows to look more like average Hollywood CGI and while this may detract from some viewer’s expectations it makes perfect sense that everyone views Terabithia in a different way, the younger May Belle (Bailee Madison) seeing her fairytale kingdom much more innocently than the older two.
The task of colouring Terabithia musically fell to relative newcomer Aaron Zigman. The result is a concoction of guitars (both acoustic and electric) and more traditional orchestra and choir, a combination which quite simply soars. The music excellently provides for all the excitement and emotional heart the film requires. Zigman is clearly very adept at this kind of style, his action material sounding at times almost John Williamsesque. Sadly the studio’s attempt to squash some cheesy pop tunes (including one AnnaSophia Robb sings herself, she’s not a bad singer but it’s a very blatant marketing ploy that wasn’t necessary) into a film otherwise devoid of the foodstuff means that on album Zigman’s score suffers significantly. A promotional score-only release makes for much better listening.
In this age when fantasy fills multiplexes like rom-coms and thrillers it’s very refreshing to see a film breaking the mould and presenting something adults will actually derive enjoyment from and does its source material justice. It’s a hidden gem of the genre with superb performances and great visuals. Just don’t forget those hankies.
This August has been my blog’s most successful month – thank you all so much for reading my reviews! As always please feel free to leave a comment with feedback, suggestions or arguments. I’m looking forward to your thoughts. Also please subscribe to the RSS feed or e-mail sub and follow me on Twitter. Until next time I wish you all the very best!