Bridge to Terabithia
"From the studios that brought you The Chronicles of Narnia!" trumpeted the advertising for Bridge to Terabithia (2007), and the trailers were full of special-effects magic like castles and giants and walking trees. This naturally alarmed fans of the much-loved Newbery Medal-winning book by Katherine Paterson, which isn't a fantasy novel at all but a story about two kids who develop a special friendship that allows them to deal with their dysfunctional families and their outsider status at school. For those who hadn't read the book and went into theaters expecting to see a Narnia clone, the disappointment must have been great the magical land of Terabithia, a construct of the kids' imagination that allows them to work through some of their darker emotions, plays a relatively small part in the overall story, and there's a distinct lack of fauns and talking lions. But the reward is great for those who don't pin their hopes on seeing a C.S. Lewis fantasy, because Terabithia is a very good movie about love, family, and the power of imagination.
Jess (Josh Hutcherson) is a talented artist who craves positive attention from his gruff, hard-working father (Robert Patrick). With four sisters including the smart, sassy young Maybelle (Bailey Madison) the family just barely scrapes by, with Jess forced to wear his sister's hand-me-down sneakers and Dad tending the family greenhouse when he's not working at the hardware store. Resigned to being ignored at home and loner at school, Jess reluctantly finds himself befriended by a girl who moves in next door Leslie (AnnaSophia Robb), a quirky, confident iconoclast who writes eloquent stories. Unlike Jess, her family isn't financially challenged, but her writer parents are so involved in their latest project that she's left on her own far too much of the time and, in her own way, she's as hungry for a connection as Jess. Director Gabor Csupo, producer/writer/animator of "Aah! Real Monsters," "Duckman," "Rugrats," and "The Wild Thornberrys," brings a surprisingly mainstream sensibility to this live-action project, wisely stepping back and injecting very little of himself into this adaptation. Jess and Leslie's adventures in their imaginary world of Terabithia based around an old treehouse that they discover in the woods near their home hits just the right note to illustrate that the magical proceedings are make-believe, and that they know that they're pretending (which is good, because in other respects the story teeters perilously close to Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures minus the obsessive pre-teen love and matricide). Jess tries his best to be the pragmatist that his father insists he be, but once Leslie exhorts him to "close your eyes and keep your mind wide open" he's seduced into joining her on their after-school adventures where they battle the evil minions of the mysterious Dark Master, including a giant who looks suspiciously like the school bully. The only off-note is the obnoxiously insistent score by Aaron Zigman, which overemphasizes every scene with either sweeping grandeur the music accompanying the kids running through a field sounds like something that John Ford would have used for an epic wagon-train scene or overly sappy melodrama. Despite that, Csupo does Paterson's book proud, and if you aren't wiping away tears at the picture's end, then you need to check to make sure you still have a heart.
The DVD from Disney Home Entertainment offers a rich, sharp, detail-intensive anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) that's virtually flawless. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio (English, French or Spanish with optional French and Spanish subtitles) is extraordinarily good, using the various channels for wind, rustling leaves, and other ambient sounds to great effect. The disc offers two commentary tracks the first, with director Csupo, writer Jeff Stockwell, and producer Hal Lieberman, is aimed squarely at the grownups and focuses mainly on the movie's messages and themes. The other, with Robb and producer Lauren Levine, is more kid-friendly, with Robb sharing her experiences working on the film and her impressions of the story. The primary extra is the featurette "Behind the Book: The Themes of Bridge to Terabithia" (14 min.), a loving, if often condescending, look at the popularity of the novel, with the author and various educators talking about why the book isn't just good, but good for you and which shouldn't be watched before viewing the film, because it gives away the ending. There's also a short piece, "Bringing Terabithia to Life" (6 min.) on the film's art direction, and a music video for the song "Keep Your Mind Wide Open," sung by Robb. Keep-case.