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“Bridge to Terabithia,”

The most you can hope for is a movie that will entertain you and take you to a place where you want to go. Once in a while there are those movies that you don't suspect will effect you in a profound way. Those movies just sneak up on you and at some point (usually around the climax) you're hooked and you discover something about yourself. Or you're reminded of a secret pain you've harbored for too long. "Bridge To Terabithia" takes you to a place in all of our imaginations, and then further into the depths of your very soul just before it rips your heart out with it's bitter-sweet ending. This is a wonderful movie that handles heavy concepts in a not too heavy handed way.

Mostly, "Terabithia" is about those awkward early teen years when you're almost old enough to understand love and mutual attraction, not quite old enough to stop playing make-believe. It's also about making quantum jumps into adulthood while facing the bitter realities of life before you're actually ready.

Seriously... if you haven't seen this film and you don't want it ruined for you, skip this review until later...

... with that said, the original book written by Katherine Paterson was about two 5th Graders. Casting this film with young actors in their early teens totally changed the theme and the dynamic of this story and asks some eye-brow raising questions.

Spoiler-Rich Plot Synopsys...

Josh Hutcherson is Jess Aarons, a young man in his early teens living on a farm with his family, the only male child, with two older and two younger sisters. His parents Jack (Robert Patrick) and Mary (Kate Butler) struggle to make ends meet as they have to give Jess some of his elder sisters hand-me-downs, most notably a pair of pink sneakers on the first day of school.

Josh's world is more cruel in school, when we see how he's bullied by larger and older students who don't appreciate or acknowledge his talent as an artist, they just see the farmer's kid with girls shoes. Troubles are compounded when he first meets Leslie (AnnaSophia Robb) - the new girl who beats him (and everyone else) in a "boys only" race. Leslie is her own person with her own eclectic style and interests and could be any young adolescent's ideal dream-girlfriend. Jess isn't amused... for about 5 second.

On the way home, we discover she's the girl-next-door, her and her writer parents moved into the newly renovated house next door. Jess and Leslie form a new bond, wondering out into the woods as they share stories of their strife in school. Using an old rope that's found hanging from a tree branch overhanging the near-by stream, the cross into a deeper part of the neighborhood forest and begin to use their imaginations and "ad-lib" the land of "Terabithia," where they learn and up-lift each other and themselves. Many of the beasts of Terabithia represent the bullies at school, of whom they fight and win in ways that they wish they could in the world they leave behind.

Through their imagination, Jess and Leslie extract a cruel revenge on girl-bully Janice Avery (Lauren Clinton) by sending her a fake love letter as if written by one of the cute boys in her class. When they befriend Janice after they realize how heart broken she was after this prank, the mean tree-troll that represents her in the forest transforms into a kindly, yet still giant, ally.

There's some ambiguity in this world of imagination... is it really "real," as a truly magic place they discover - or are these two just so caught up in the world created by their imaginations that it's only real to them as we see it through their eyes? There's something awkward about their make-believe, very intense and child-like for 14 year old kids. The swinging across the stream stands for a metaphor for something, again something that's ambiguous... we're supposed to guess what that means or interpret and insert something from our own lives.

For most of the movie, these two create a strong bond and are everything to each other and I got the sense that there was something much more developing between these two such as first love. I hoped these two would remain together and remain strong... showing us that first love can last forever. Jess meets Leslie's eccentric parents and he help them repaint one of the rooms with gold paint, before the sun goes down and we can see the sunset set the room on fire. He's more at home with them then he is with his own parents.

Jess's family takes Leslie to church and on the way home in the back of the truck they discuss the concept of having to believe in the bible or going to hell. Leslie thinks the message of Christ's sacrifice is beautiful, she doesn't have to believe it but she does and she exclaims that the message of hell is tainted - God is too busy running all the wonders of the world to condemn anyone...

The only obstacle between these two is Jess's infatuation with their music teacher, Zooey Deschanel's "Ms. Edmunds," who takes Jess on a special trip to a museum on the same day Leslie crosses the stream by her self as the rope breaks. She dies from the fall.. Jess is overwrought with grief, believing that if he made sure that Leslie went with Ms. Edmunds to the museum, too, she wouldn't have died or died alone. Leslie's parents tell Jess that he meant so much to Leslie, that she truly loved him and he was all she talked about. Were it not for Jess, she wouldn't have made it through school.

Janice and Jess become closer friends and sit with each other during the final bus ride home in the movie... it's unexpected and doesn't feel contrived or too convenient but almost a natural progression in their attempt to deal with their grief.

To deal with his grief, Jess builds a permanent bridge to "Terabithia," and takes his younger sister there. Terabithia needs a new princess, and once there the magical land transforms like never before. Jess is not fully healed, but including his sister in this magical world makes some sense: Terabithia is a world of make-believe and needs the imaginations of much younger people to keep it fresh and alive...

The motion picture was marketed as a new and different "Chronicles Of Narnia" and I think this was a "happy mistake" on our parts. This is no "Chronicles Of Narnia," it seems more like the philosophy of young adolescents boiled down into a 95 minutes.

Our own Terabithia...

There was something about this film that touched me personally and I'm struggling to explain exactly why. I grew up in a neighborhood where there was a vast forest behind many of our houses, where all of us imagined that forest as being something much more. The woods in our back yard were truly a world of our imagination and a place beyond our imagination. It was once a place forbidden when we were younger, and then a place filled of excitement, adventure and exploration once we were old enough.

... And as we got older and were allowed more freedom in those woods, that's when some of the things that happened that helped some of us grow up: friendships were made and grew, conflicts were resolved or compounded and we learned what the word "boundary" meant in a literal and figurative sense. I look back at my own time in my own "Terabithia" with fond regret and wonderful melancholy... I could have very easily been "Jess" wanting my own "Leslie" to join me there.

There was also the aspect of this movie being about "first love" and finding someone who accepts you for who you are; not for who you were or what you might be, but loved by someone for exactly who you are. There's something to be said about being loved BECAUSE you're a little crazy and you march to the beat of your own drum. What could be better then being allowed to be who you want to be and have someone love you back, especially at an age that's the most difficult to be your own person? When you're an adolescent like "Jess" and "Leslie," and you're different or strive for something more or just better, you're an easy target by those striving to conform and be like everyone else. You're an even easier target for the bullies.

How much better would my life be when I was that age if I met my true love at that young age? How much easier would growing up be if the person I was meant to be with was there so we could help each other through the trials and tribulations associated with growing from early adolesense into adult hood.

... Which brings me to what might be the most controversial aspect of this movie, if only this review. Towards the end of the movie, the last time Jess sees Leslie, we see that he's starting to see her differently. When he sees her alive for the last time, there's the slow-motion soft lens view of her. Is he really falling in love? You're watching boy on the brink of puberty running into the woods with a girl who really likes him for who he really is, a girl who is also on the brink of puberty if not in the early stages. What do you think these two are going to do eventually, had the rope not broken? Could "Terabithia" eventually become a synonym for making love, and "The Bridge To Terabithia" would plunge deep into the consequences of intimacy before marriage and adulthood?

Jess's loss has more to do with what could have been then guilt. Just as Jess was ready to give his heart for the first time, it's recipient is taken from him and he clings to the most platonic aspect of his relationship with her. Which makes Jess taking his sister to "Terabithia" both touching and inappropriate.

"The Bridge To Terabithia," is different things to different people, and it's one of those movies that could change for each viewer over time. This movie might means something to kids who see it for the first time when they're 8, and then something new when you're 14, and finally something else well into adulthood. It left me almost in the verge of tears and a mixed bag of emotions. Those of us who had been living vicariously through this movie while wishing we found our soul-mates during a time when we could avert jealousies and a sense of exclusion feel as if something was stolen from us.

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