One wonders if the makers of Bridge to Terabithia actually have something against all the people who loved reading Katherine Paterson's award-winning book as children. The original story, which deals with loneliness, isolation, and the importance of friendship, is now -- thanks to a cloying screenplay by Jeff Stockwell and the book's author's son David Paterson -- little more than an anodyne valentine to the power of the imagination or some such cliché popular among vulgarizers of young adult literature. You could ask, why can't they just leave well enough alone? The answer, unfortunately, is they never do.
A great many problems with Bridge to Terabithia could have been solved by casting, and unfortunately director Gabor Csupo
gets that wrong from the start. The protagonist, Jesse Aarons, a lonely fifth grader in a small town, is played with sullen inattention by Josh Hutcherson
. His better half is Leslie Burke, the new girl in town, performed by AnnaSophia Robb
with a bright and shallow perkiness that suggests a callow Keira Knightley
10 years ago. With not much going in the way of interpersonal chemistry between the two leads, it's difficult for the film's rather (on the surface) uneventful and deeply interior story to gain much traction. Article continues below
The gist of the matter is that both Jesse and Leslie are pretty miserable, as is the lot of many isolated fifth graders. They're both picked on by bullies and their respective home lives are less than great -- Jesse's parents are working all the time when they're not yelling at him, and Leslie's mom and dad are self-involved writers who barely notice when she's not there. As a means of escape, the two spend their days after school let out back in a deep patch of woods near their houses, reachable only by a rope swing over a turbulent creek. Back there, in a falling-down treehouse, they create the imaginary world of Terabithia, filled with magical creatures, a Dark Lord, and the occasional battle with the forces of evil. Beats geometry homework.
A major concern among fans of the book is that the backers of the film (Disney
, as well as Christian media group Walden, which is behind the Narnia films) would turn the story into a special effects extravaganza; this at least didn't happen. The CGI scenes that Csupo enlists to graphically illustrate the fantasy life of Jesse and Leslie are kept thankfully brief. The heart of the film is indeed supposed to be Jesse and Leslie's friendship -- as well as the surprising (at least for those not familiar with the book) tragedy that turns the movie on its head near the end -- and it's not the fault of the special effects that this heart is simply not beating.
For Bridge to Terabithia to work at all, it needed a strong dose of something that is simply not here. The brightly generic camerawork, cliché-clogged screenplay, flat acting styles (though character actors like Robert Patrick
and Zooey Deschanel
do decent work in small roles), and a couple preachy nods to the wonders of religion reduce this potentially heartbreaking tale to something cheap and ordinary. This isn't art, it's product.