Terabithia chooses character over action

By Matt Zakosek

Despite the wildly misleading trailers, Bridge to Terabithia is not another hyperkinetic, special effects–laden “adventure” for Generation ADD. Instead, it is a thoughtful, occasionally clunky family drama—more Stand by Me than Spy Kids—with fine performances by its teenage leads, Josh Hutcherson and AnnaSophia Robb.

Of the two, Hutcherson (American Splendor) is slightly more effective as Jesse Aarons, an underprivileged farm boy with a passion for painting. But this may be because young men are so rarely able or expected to emote onscreen. At least since Macaulay Culkin banshee-screamed his way to fame in Home Alone, the default emotion for boys has been detachment, but that is not so in this film.

Fifth-grader Jesse is teased by his classmates for wearing his sisters’ hand-me-downs and tormented by his father for his sensitive, artistic nature. But when the free-spirited Leslie Burke (Robb) moves to town, he finds a new best friend and co-conspirator. Together, they create a fantasy world in the woods that they dub Terabithia. These flights of fancy, heavily emphasized in the previews, exist entirely in Jesse and Leslie’s imaginations and comprise a very small portion of the film.

Robb is physically perfect for the role, but too perky to play Leslie with much pathos. I longed to see what an actress like Little Miss Sunshine’s Abigail Breslin might have done with the part. As in 2005’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, in which Robb played the gum-chomping Violet Beauregarde, her interpretation of Leslie’s character is a little too obvious. It doesn’t help that the costume designers stick her in garish, faux–riot grrl clothes as a sign of her corporate-created “individuality.”

A lesser film would traffic in romantic tension between the two leads, but Jesse and Leslie remain refreshingly chaste; this is one case in which the PG rating is liberating. Schoolyard dates and awkward first kisses belong in some visions of adolescence, but not this one. And if parents Jack and Ellie Aarons (played, respectively, by Robert Patrick and Kate Butler) are unusually accepting of the co-ed friendship, that can be explained by the distractions of their working-class existence. This is the first film in recent memory in which parents agonize over the bills and require their children to help out around the house.

Katherine Paterson, author of the young-adult novel on which Terabithia is based, said that she unconsciously lifted the name of the imaginary kingdom from the island of Terebinthia in C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Lewis, however, was likely referencing the Terebinth tree in the Bible, and the film adaptation of Terabithia is full of Biblical allusions. The characters openly discuss their spirituality, a rarity for Hollywood—but unsurprising in this instance, given that Terabithia is produced by Walden Media, the Christ-centered company behind The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

The proselytizing is kept to a minimum, but this is one time Walden cannot be accused of shoehorning religion into the story. The dialogue about God and Hell is lifted almost verbatim from the novel. It isn’t quite as effective as director Gabor Csupo (of Rugrats fame) intends, but it’s far from the cringe-inducing levels of, say, Kirk Cameron in the Left Behind films. And the faith Terabithia pushes is shockingly progressive (let’s just say Hell is dismissed as an invention of men that would never be endorsed by a just and compassionate God). If this is where Christian-themed entertainment is headed, then the sadism of Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ may have actually been worth it.

Terabithia is further bolstered by strong supporting performances by Lauren Clinton as misunderstood bully Janet Avery and lovely Elf star Zooey Deschanel as teacher Miss Edmunds. Deschanel’s character is a bit of an anachronism; her starry-eyed, fun-loving music teacher was more at home in the novel, which took place shortly after the Vietnam War. But the old-fashioned idealism she represents adds to the film’s charm, even if the sight of iPod-toting fifth-graders swaying and bobbing to a tune about a ’57 Chevrolet is pretty unbelievable.

The film is endearing for its sheer dorkiness, which makes it a tough sell—will kids raised on the high-tech gadgetry of Agent Cody Banks and the cynicism of the Shrek movies sit still for a story so, well, innocent? Terabithia has much in common with last year’s How to Eat Fried Worms, another sincere adaptation of a kid-lit classic that seems to have underperformed. The action-heavy trailer may have drawn ’em in over opening weekend, but kids—especially younger ones—are going to start squirming when they realize they’ve been suckered into this generation’s equivalent of My Girl.

Then again, is that such a bad thing? If Terabithia (co-scripted by David Paterson, the author’s son and inspiration for the novel) leads to more reluctant readers to the Newbery Medal–winner, then it has more than justified its existence. It can be forgiven its CGI excesses, its terminal squareness, and especially its too-easy ending.