Bridge to Terabithia started out as a novel by Katherine Paterson, winning the John Newberry Medal in 1978. In the children's publishing world, the Newberry is like a license to print money: a replica of the medal gets placed on any new editions of the winning book; teachers make their principals buy class sets of the novel and get busy writing novel studies; children's librarians start featuring it on their must read lists; parents buy it as a Christmas present for their children instead of the Wii they really wanted. I think "Newberry Award Winning Author" legally becomes the winning author's new first name.
Oh, and I also think Scholastic owns their souls in perpetuity.
So it is not surprising that this book has been adapted into a movie. It was adapted for television in 1985, and the results were pretty awful. This time around though, the people at Walden Media have tackled the case. Walden Media is the studio that in the last seven years has set about producing family friendly films, including last year's The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. Walden is backed by Philip Anschutz who, while worth $7.8 billion, is only the 31st richest person in the US. And that, my friends, is a sad, sad thing.
This movie tells the story of Jess Aarons (Josh Hutcherson, who at thirteen has a chin you can cut cheese on), who has spent all summer training so he can be the fastest boy in his class. (In the book it's grade 5, but the movie kids are a wee bit older.) Imagine his surprise when Leslie Burke (AnnaSophia Robb, last seen as Violet Beauregarde in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) transfers into his rural school and promptly beats all the boys in the footrace. Despite this degrading introduction, Jess and Leslie become fast friends.
Jess is the only boy in a dirt-poor family with four girls. The financial crunch is so bad that he has to wear his sister's hand-me-down pink sneakers. Imagine that humiliation.
Leslie, on the other hand, is the only child of affluent writers. Once again, imagine the humiliation. She is the quirky girl who wears weird clothing. Together they run afoul of the school bully, a girl who makes you pay a dollar to use the bathroom and steals Twinkies from younger kids. (By the way, the scene of Leslie leading a group of primary students across the schoolyard chanting "Free the Pee" is brilliant.)
After school, they explore the property around their homes and discover a rope swing, which they use to cross a creek. On the other side, they find an abandoned tree house. There, Leslie demonstrates how to use the power of imagination to build a fantasy world. Jess and Leslie are King and Queen of Terabithia, their mythical kingdom. They use their imagination to merge the school bullies with forest creatures to create monsters, which they then vanquish in battle.
Along the way, they both learn about friendship, revenge and that jerky parents can suddenly become understanding and nurturing.
Also in the cast is Zoey "I'm Bones' Sister" Deschanel as the neo-hippie music teacher who is the only adult who appreciates Jess's artwork. And who guarantees she won't be teaching for very long given that she invites Jess out for a private field trip.
Robert "T-1000" Patrick plays Jess's jerky dad. While I am against typecasting, I have gone on the record before as stating that actors who have played scary villains should not be allowed to play parents in children's movies. It's just too creepy.
While the story has been updated from the original 1970s milieu, the movie is a pretty faithful adaptation of the novel. This may be because the screenwriter is David Paterson, son of the author. Given that the original novel is apparently based on a real event in David's life he would have a real reason, beyond his mother's rolling pin, to stay true to the original story. They have shortened bits, changed some others, but all in all it's quite close to the original. And that's a good thing (see my review of Eragon).
Seriously, the previews had me terrified when they kept talking about Jess and Leslie having to defend their mythical kingdom, I thought someone had fallen asleep halfway through the book and dreamt of The Chronicles of Narnia. But don't be fooled by the bad voice-over man, the fantasy elements of this movie are firmly rooted in reality.
That's the best message this movie gives. It's a kid's movie; there has to be a message beyond "buy the toys". It's not an escapist fantasy. Hundred of kids out there will recognize themselves in Jess, whose father is constantly telling him to get his head out the clouds, or in Leslie who makes things up because it sounds better than what is actually happening in her life.
Children are going to watch this movie and realize they can use their imagination to cope with their reality, no matter how bad it might be. Hopefully they will also realize that imagination is far better than any electronic doodad (please pardon the technical term) that their parents can buy.
But lest you think that this is a visit to the Small World ride at Disney World, there are some gloomy bits to this movie. You may not want to take younger children to see this, as the film takes an emotionally dark turn near the end. If you're not sure, read the book first. At about 120 pages, it's a pretty quick read. But otherwise, do go see this movie. It was one of the better ones I have seen in a long time and went well with a cup of tea and a bag of knockoff Fuzzy Peaches from the local Bulk Barn.