Thursday, January 10, 2008

Bridge to Terabithia Brings Children's Book Classic to Life

My children must be the few left on the planet who’ve never read the book, Bridge to Terabithia, either because their teachers never assigned it, or Nickelodeon never made it into a full-length feature cartoon.

On one of my rare nights out at the movies, the trailer splashed across the big screen. I tucked the fantasy images into the back of my mind but, as always, awaited the critical reviews. These days, only top of the line films can coax me into a movie theatre.

Despite all the promise of a new Disney film classic, the movie barely passed critical muster. A tepid C+ rating from the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Combined worldwide box office receipts and DVD rental fees hovering under $200M. Only the lead actress, AnnaSophia Robb, received any critical acclaim. By conventional standards, the film was a big yawn.

Now, having finally screened the DVD, I am puzzled by the laisez-faire critical reaction. Certainly, the themes of Katherine Paterson’s book -- imperfect home lives, being an outcast, building relationships, learning tolerance and trust, appreciating ourselves for who we are, discovering our own place in the world, and striving to be one’s best -- are vividly brought to life. Where did the adaptation go wrong?

The story unfolds through a child’s eyes when the world was an oyster waiting to be cracked. Jesse Aarons is a talented young artist locked in the body of a fifth grade boy. Like most children, he lives in a world where others define his identity. His blue-collar parents mean well, but are too busy making ends meet to give him the special recognition he craves. Other kids pick on him. Older sisters torment him. Teachers barely notice him. Jesse is a wooden soldier who barely dares to dream.

Then, quirky Leslie Burke moves next door. The only child of well-to-do writers, Leslie effortlessly creates a world of her own through the power of imagination. She sees life the way others can only dream. Jesse is drawn to the way she handles adversity. No matter what you do, the eighth grade bully will try to put you down, so have fun with it, Leslie advises. A stick of gum can make life taste better. Helping another person is a way to help your self. The two rapidly become fast friends.

Leslie’s life affirming perspective turns possibilities into reality. Jesse slowly begins to follow her lead. Together, they transform a swath of land behind his parents’ property into the fantasy kingdom of Terabithia. “We rule and nothing crushes us” becomes their motto of invincibility. Life as Jesse knows it begins to change.

In Terabithia, Leslie teaches Jesse to do for the sake of enjoyment rather than outcome Together, through the power of collective imagination, the two share whimsical and magical adventures. Terabithia is everything the fantasy life of kids should be. When the heartbreak of reality rears its ugly head, Jesse is left with a life altering decision. Will he vanquish the unwelcome intruder or will he retreat back into his mind-numbing world? Ultimately, Jesse must decide which bridge to cross. By doing so, he chooses his own identity.

If you haven’t read the book, don’t expect a spoiler. Also, do not be deceived by the film’s PG rating. Its life lessons are unsuitable for younger children. The Disney classic, Old Yeller, immediately comes to mind. Finally, do not expect to be wowed by the special effects of WETA, the studio created by Peter Jackson of Lord of the Rings fame. Critics were understandably unimpressed by the animation hype. Perhaps that’s the reason they considered the film such a disappointment.

If so, the critics got the movie all wrong. Bridge to Terabithia is not about the special effects. It’s about the story. Really look hard and keep your mind wind open. If you do, anything is possible. The message may not be unique, but the journey is sure worth the ride.