Re­al­ity makes the fan­tasy

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Evan Wil­liams

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.

HE good

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

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