by Mel Valentin
Two words: Walden Media. If you don’t know who or what Walden Media is, you should. Founded only six years ago, Walden Media produces family-oriented film, television, publishing and Internet products. Two years ago, Walden Media co-produced (with Disney) and released "The Witch, The Lion, and the Wardrobe," the lucrative first entry in C.S. Lewis’ "The Chronicles of Narnia" franchise. Last fall, Walden Media co-produced another beloved children’s classic, E.B. White’s "Charlotte’s Web." If all that sounds benevolent to you, it shouldn’t. Walden Media has an agenda and it’s not one everyone’s going to agree on, to spread right-wing Christian values through their media properties. That alone makes Walden Media’s latest foray into big-budget, family-oriented filmmaking, "Bridge to Terabithia," an adaptation of Katherine Paterson's Newberry Medal-winning children's novel, immediately suspect.Jesse Aarons (Josh Hutcherson), a put-upon, downtrodden, harried fifth grader, begins the school year with one goal in mind, to become the fastest kid in his class. He’s trained all summer for the “boys only” race and expects to win. Trouble first shows up when he learns that his family can’t afford a new pair of running shoes for him. While Jesse lives on a farm, his father Jack (Robert Patrick) manages the local hardware store to make ends meet while his mother, Nancy (Kate Butler) keeps the household going. Jack cares little for Jesse’s artistic pretensions (Jesse keeps a scrapbook full of his illustrations) and pays more attention to his daughters, Brenda (Devon Wood), Ellie (Emma Fenton), Joyce (Grace Brannigan), and his apparent favorite, May Belle (Bailee Madison).
"Misleading marketing + cheap plot devices = no sale."
At school, Jesse has to contend with Janice Avery (Lauren Clinton), a bullying eighth grader and Scott Hoager (Cameron Wakefield), Janice’s male counterpart who harasses Jesse every chance he gets. On the bright side, Jesse has a crush on Ms. Edmonds (Zooey Deschanel), his music teacher. Leslie Burke (AnnaSophia Robb), the new kid in town, joins the race at the last second and wins. An unhappy Jesse initially refuses Leslie’s offer of friendship, but their shared status as outsiders, neighbors, and artists (he illustrates, she makes up stories), changes all that. Crossing into a neighboring property via an old rope tied to a tree, Leslie weaves tales about a magical kingdom, Terabithia, with Jesse and Leslie as the king and queen, respectively.
There are several why moviegoers, especially those with small children, should seriously pause before giving Bridge to Terabithia a chance at their local multiplex. Anyone who's read Katherine Paterson’s novel knows that not everyone makes it to the end of the film. The untimely demise of a central character in a third act sets off a barrage of hand wringing, confused looks, furrowed brows, black clothing, tears, and survivor’s guilt. It feels cheap and manipulative, the last refuge of a writer who doesn't know where else to take their characters. That this event apparently had a real-world analog in the Paterson’s life and inspired her to write Bridge to Terabithia doesn't make it less offensive or nonsensical is what's ostensibly a family film. Never fear, though, as faith and, presumably, the "right" beliefs help the survivors move through the grieving process.
Even more pernicious than the untimely demise of a central character is the extremely awkward inclusion of Christianity halfway through the film. After a curious Leslie attends Sunday mass with Jesse's family, Leslie, Jesse, and May Belle (who's not even ten) engage in a theological discussion about heaven and hell (as in who goes where depending on their religious beliefs). The discussion is so poorly scripted, literally coming out of nowhere, that even fundamentalist or evangelical Christians might find objectionable or clumsy (and unlikely to create converts to their religious beliefs). Frankly, putting words and phrases in the mouth of a small child to push any agenda should give anyone pause. It's surprising that the powers-that-be at Walden Media didn't take a more subtle approach, but apparently the word "subtlety" isn’t one powers-that-be are familiar with.
Last, parents expecting and/or hoping to take their children to a The Chronicles of Narnia-style fantasy/action film will be sorely disappointed. The fantasy elements in Bridge to Terabithia are minor at best (and occasionally awful, effects wise). It's difficult to understand why Disney and Walden Media agreed on a deceptive marketing campaign, knowing full well that a backlash could sink Bridge to Terabithia's box office prospects once word got out, pre- or post-release that the Bridge to Terabithia bears little resemblance to The Chronicles of Narnia (final image notwithstanding). Apparently, though, the powers-that-be made a conscious decision that a misleading marketing campaign wouldn't be a problem.Not surprisingly, "Bridge to Terabithia" isn't a film that this critic can recommend, even under the looser standards that family-oriented films tend to receive. On balance, there's no reason to give "Bridge to Terabithia" a passing grade. Too bad, though, as a game cast, especially the two young leads, Josh Hutcherson and AnnaSophia Robb offer up persuasive performances. They deserved better from "Bridge to Terabithia." Then again, so did we.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=15592&reviewer=402
originally posted: 02/17/07 05:20:50