The Way to Wonderland
An unusual number of people have come up to me in the last month or so to tell me how marvelous they found Pan’s Labyrinth.
It’s nice to be able to agree with them. Bridge to Terabithia afforded me another chance to appreciate that Guillermo del Toro film anew. An adaptation of Katherine Paterson’s much-loved 1978 novel, Bridge is rather similar to Pan’s Labyrinth in its story and tone, but it doesn’t have nearly the Spanish film’s power. The filmmakers here don’t do anything egregiously wrong, and do a few things exactly right. Still, it’s extraordinarily difficult to balance a realistic story with a fairy tale. The slightest break in tone is enough to dispel the illusion. That happens all too often in this movie.
Josh Hutcherson stars as Jesse Aarons, a fifth-grade student who doesn’t fit in at school and is bullied because his family’s financial troubles force him to wear his older sister’s sneakers. He’s lucky, though, in that he finds a fellow outcast at school in the form of new kid Leslie Burke (AnnaSophia Robb), a city girl who runs faster than all the boys and doesn’t have a tv. She leads him to a deserted place in the woods that she calls the kingdom of Terabithia, an enchanted realm full of magical creatures. There they do battle with monsters, and more importantly carve out a place for themselves where their imagination can run free.
The film is the first live-action directing job by Gabor Csupo, who’s better known for creating the Rugrats tv series. The special-effects guys under his command conjure up ferocious wolves and friendly giants and a cloud of insect warriors coming to life inside the woods, yet his vision is never quite convincing because the woods themselves never take on the mystical atmosphere that’s needed. Instead, they seem too much like the trees that form the backdrop of the non-Terabithian portion of the story. The only place where you buy into the reality of the fantasy world is at the very end of the movie, when we see the entire kingdom laid out across rivers and valleys.
Before that, the actors are the main thing to watch. The realistic part of the film is enhanced by Robert Patrick as Jess’ gruff, overwhelmed dad and Zooey Deschanel as the music teacher Jess has a crush on. (She is eminently crush-worthy, especially in a role that uses her abundant musical talents.) There’s also an incandescent star turn from Robb, seen previously to much less effect in Because of Winn-Dixie and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Here she looks like a blonde preteen version of Keira Knightley and effortlessly embodies the character’s easy, fearless confidence.
These performers deserved a worthier setting, and the material needed a skilled hand rather than a first-timer. It needed del Toro or Alfonso Cuarón or even the out-of-favor M. Night Shyamalan to animate the strange apparitions in the minds of these outwardly ordinary kids. For a few fleeting stretches, Bridge to Terabithia looks like an instant classic. Too bad the rest of this movie, while watchable, isn’t wild enough.
Bridge to Terabithia
Starring Josh Hutcherson and AnnaSophia Robb. Directed by Gabor Csupo. Written by Jeff Stockwell and David Paterson, based on Katherine Paterson’s novel. Rated PG.