Reality makes the fantasy
Tnews is that is not what I expected. I’m not even sure it’s what it promises. The advance material makes great play with the word imagination — the film is a ‘‘ celebration of the imagination’’, from a ‘‘ vividly imaginative screenplay’’ that ‘‘ makes the imaginary real’’ — such talk being code, in my experience, for displays of elaborate special effects.
Sure enough, the credits give long lists of effects supervisors, animation experts and other practitioners of the arts of illusion, and the director is a Hungarian- born Hollywood animation specialist, Gabor Csupo, making his liveaction debut.
As it happens, Bridge to Terabithia is something quite different and quite special. Ogres, vultures and giants are in fairly short supply, but there are enough of them to make the necessary impact when it matters. There is surprisingly little fantasy stuff, with children flying on broomsticks, talking to strange creatures or confronting monstrous apparitions, as they do in Harry Potter films. And for this relief, much thanks.
Csupo’s film can be recommended not only for children but for that strange new category identified as the young adult ( those we used to called teenagers). I’m tempted to crawl out on my favourite limb, a place where I frequently find myself, and call it the best film for children since The Wizard of Oz, but that may be going too far.
I suppose the paradox — the triumph, if you like — of Bridge to Terabithia is that while it is about two children who imagine fantastic things, the imagined events form only a small part of the story. Certainly, the fantasy sequences ( the work of Weta Digital, the New Zealand effects firm that did much of the fancy business for The Lord of the Rings ) are beautifully achieved, and all the more effective for being brief and infrequent. But for most of the film we are in a real world of childhood experience, a world of family tensions and sibling rivalries, schoolyard bullying and classroom competitiveness, the giving and withholding of parental love, all the insecurities and anxieties imposed by the everyday world and relieved ( if a child is fortunate) by unexpected joys and friendships.
It is this, more than the visual effects, that gives the film its power and charm.
The source is Katherine Paterson’s novel, adapted by her son, David Paterson ( working with Jeff Stockwell), and the hero is Jess ( Josh Hutcherson), a boy of about 12, who is quiet, anxious, a little stolid and therefore a prime target for bullies at school. Jess is one of four children in a struggling family living in a rather unlikely part of Los Angeles where houses are surrounded by bushland and there isn’t a freeway in sight.
When Jess’s parents make him wear a pair of his sister’s hand- me- down sneakers to school, the indignity is quickly spotted by the other boys, despite Jess’s best efforts to paint over the pink bits. His humiliation isn’t relieved when he’s beaten in a running race by Leslie ( AnnaSophia Robb), the new girl in the class. Jess and Leslie, with their shared artistic leanings ( Jess likes drawing, Leslie makes up stories) soon become friends, setting off one day on a walk together, crossing a stream and entering their imaginary world of Terabithia.
It’s clear Leslie is the more imaginative and inventive one. She’s the star writer in her class and is careful to distinguish between lying and making up stories for fun, a distinction not quite grasped by Jess, whose family has strict religious views. Leslie identifies the ruler of Terabithia as the Dark Master, and when the pair starts running through woods inhabited by strange black shapes and creatures resembling school tormentors, my first inclination ( recovering as I was from the third instalment of Pirates of the Caribbean ) was to lean back, switch off and brace myself for long stretches of fantastical gimmickry. But no, in a little while we’re home again and back in class.
Jess attracts the attention of a sympathetic music teacher ( Zooey Deschanel), who recognises his troubled nature and rewards him with encouraging smiles. I have no doubt that for many young audiences, accustomed or inured to the wonders of computer- generated imagery, the real- life scenes in Bridge to Terabithia will be more absorbing than all the enchanted forests, walking trees and magical landscapes.
The friendship between the children — innocent, guileless but tinged, it must be said, by hints of an awakening sexual awareness — is beautifully conveyed by the two young performers. I might have wished for more animation and spontaneity from Jess, but his pluck and doggedness are what appeal to Leslie, together with their devotion to the gods of creativity.
The film is deeply moving as a study of trust and friendship. For Jess and Leslie, their imagined world is not so much a refuge from the real one as the bridge to deeper engagement with its emotional perils and rewards.
It’s an old question: Can the cinema, with its insistence on the literal, the real, the fixed and unalterable image, match the power of the written word to stimulate the imagination?
Bridge to Terabithia is not the first film to claim credit for fostering children’s imaginative faculties. In The Neverending Story and its never- ending sequels, the whole plot turned on the power of books to create a world of makebelieve transcending everyday experience. No one seemed to notice the world of make- believe was being delivered pre- packaged by movie technicians. And when a child’s imaginative world is devised by animators and computer programmers, what is left for the youthful imagination to discover unaided?
It’s never easy to bridge the gap between reality and fantasy and make a coherent whole, but occasionally a film succeeds: The Chronicles of Narnia , Five Children and It ( based on E. Nesbit’s book), the delightful Charlotte’s Web. I haven’t read Paterson’s book, but I think Csupo’s film is in select company. If it succeeds, it’s because the emphasis is more on the real than the fantastic. And if, at some level, that puts it at odds with the spirit of the novel, audiences may have cause to be thankful. This is family entertainment of the best and richest kind.
To good effect: Technical wizards have their turn but the real- life scenes with AnnaSophia Robb and Josh Hutcherson make Bridge to Terabithia a success