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Bridge to Terabithia (2007)

Walt Disney Home Entertainment
DVD Released: 6/19/2007

All Ratings out of

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 6/25/2007

Before all of my time became devoted to DVD reviews, I used to be an avid reader. I typically had a stack of novels waiting to be devoured. My tastes ran towards horror fiction, so, aside from Stephen King books, I rarely ran into the situation where one of my favorite stories was being made into a movie. However, when that did happen, I would go through the "Will they get it right?" anxiety. That occurred with Bridge to Terabithia, one of my favorite books from childhood. The novel holds a very special place with me, and I cringed at the thought of Hollywood ruining the beautiful story. Would the core of the book emerge unscathed?

Bridge to Terabithia is set in a rural area of America. Jesse Aarons (Josh Hutcherson) is a rising fifth-grader who lives on a farm with his parents and his four sisters. Being the only boy in a very busy family, Jesse receives little attention at home. The two things that he loves are drawing and running. He's looking forward to winning one of the foot races which are held daily at school. During class, a new student, Leslie Burke (AnnaSophia Robb) is introduced to Jesse's class. Leslie is dressed in a peculiar manner and her bright disposition is surprising to the other kids. What's even more surprising is when she beats all of the boys, including Jesse, at the race. Jesse is further surprised to learn that Leslie lives next door to him. This commonality, combined with the fact that they both like running and often feel like outsiders, leads the two to become friends.

They discover an old rope leading across a creek and swing over. Once in the forest, Leslie declares that this will be their special place where they can escape from the rest of the world. They will call it "Terabithia" and she and Jesse will be the King and Queen of the land. They discover an old tree-house and restore it. As the two share many adventures, both at school and in Terabithia, Jesse soon learns the true value and meaning of friendship.

It's rare that I feel as divided about a film as I do about Bridge to Terabithia. Perhaps if I wasn't so familiar with the source novel, I wouldn't feel this way, but as I've read the book many times, this fact is unavoidable. Here's the gist of my gut reaction: the makers of Bridge to Terabithia got some things very right and some things very wrong.

Let's focus on the right for now. The casting is very good here. Josh Hutcherson has a down-to-earth quality which is essentially for the role, and a kind of honesty which comes through on-screen. In the book, Leslie is described as a tomboy, and AnnaSophia Robb is far too cute to be considered a tomboy, but she has a fresh electricity which makes her instantly likeable. One of Leslie's defining qualities is her optimism, and Robb brings this to life. Director Gabor Csupo and production designer Robert Gillies have done a good job with the look of Jesse's house and the school, and they look realistically middle-class (Save for the satellite dish at the Aarons' house. Let me get this straight, you can't afford new shoes, but you've got a dish?)

The most important aspect of the story is the friendship between Jesse and Leslie and Bridge to Terabithia performs well in that department. Some may want to read romantic intentions into it, but the relationship between Jesse and Leslie is very innocent and based on the need to find a kindred spirit. All of this plays well in the film and we get the sense that these two belong together, despite the fact that they are polar opposites.

And now for the movie's offenses. In the book, as in the film, Leslie coaxes Jesse into creating the imaginary world of "Terabithia". In the book, they make a "castle" (the treehouse), have a "prince" (Leslie's dog) and have imaginary adventures. But, these parts of the story stop at imaginary and we feel as if we are witnessing two children relishing in everyday play. However, the movie takes this notion way too far. Through the use of state-of-the-art special effects, Jesse and Leslie encounter all kinds of monsters and beasties in the forest. And despite the fact that this is all "imaginary", we see the two immersed in this world and a certain line is crossed. Leslie goes from being a child with an active imagination to coming across as someone who is having very vivid hallucinations, and Jesse appears to be an unwilling participant who is humoring her. In this sense, the movie is insulting the viewer. It wants to be like The Chronicles of Narnia, or The Lord of the Rings, or Harry Potter and dazzle us with special effects. It would have been much better if we hadn't seen any thing at all and simply observed the two friends playing. But, modern audiences can't be asked to use their own imaginations, right?

My other issue with the film has to do with the plot twist. I won't give anything away for those who don't know the story, but something unexpected happens in third act. In the book, there is little warning to this and it hits the reader very hard. Writers Jeff Stockwell and David Paterson (son of the book's author) have opted to take this same route in the film. Now, for those who don't know the book, I'm sure that this was very effective. But, considering how popular the novel is, I expected to film to lead up to this moment. By stretching it out, the filmmakers could have wrung every ounce of emotion out of the storypoint.

So, it should be pretty obvious that I have mixed feelings about Bridge to Terabithia. Knowing Hollywood, they could have really wrecked this beloved story, so the fact that most of survived the leap from page to screen is admirable. The characters ring true, as does the all-important friendship. Ironically, it's the presumably expensive special effects which cheapen the film and threaten its sincerity. This is the kind of movie which will probably be enjoyed more by those who don't know the book. But, fans of the novel will appreciate the effort, considering they don't turn it off during the special effects scenes.

Bridge to Terabithia crosses over to DVD courtesy of Walt Disney Home Entertainment. The film has come to DVD in two separate versions, one widescreen and the other full-frame. For the purposes of this review, only the widescreen version was viewed. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the transfer has been enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The transfer looks very nice, as the image is sharp and clear, showing no grain and no overt defects from the source material. The colors are very important in the film and they look great here. It's very nice to see the dark greens of the forest contrast with Leslie's colorful clothes. The framing appears to be accurate and there is little artifacting here. The DVD features a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which provides clear dialogue and sound effects. The stereo effects are good, but it's the surround and subwoofer effects which emerge during the "Terabithia" scenes which is very impressive.

The Bridge to Terabithia DVD includes a handful of extras. The DVD includes two AUDIO COMMENTARIES. The first features director Gabor Csupo, writer Jeff Stockwell, and producer Hal Lieberman. This is an OK talk, as the trio attempts to be scene specific, but they often become distracted and talk about several different things at once. Stockwell does point out parts of the story which differ from the novel. The second commentary has producer Laura Levine and stars Josh Hutcherson and AnnaSophia Robb. This is a fun chat as the two actors have many stories about the film's production and they maintain their talk throughout. "Behind the Book: The Themes of Bridge to Terabithia" (15 minutes) contains comments from author Katherine Paterson, her son David, and several educators, who discuss the important points of the book. The best part of this featurette is Paterson's retelling of the real-life events which lead to the creation of the novel. We get a brief look at the creation of the special effects in "Digital Imagination: Bringing Terabithia to Life" (6 minutes). The final extra on the disc is a MUSIC VIDEO for the song "Keep Your Mind Wide Open" performed by AnnaSophia Robb.

Review Copyright 2007 by Mike Long