There are fantasies, and there are stories about children who fantasize.
Bridge to Terabithia – which concerns a boy and girl who create an imaginary kingdom for themselves, as a sort of refuge from the travails of home and school – is most definitely the latter. But the Disney studio has gone out of its way to promote the film as if it were an actual fairy tale.
The filmmakers themselves blur the line a little, by bringing the children’s fantasies vividly to life, using all the latest special effects. And sometimes the world of Terabithia even seems to take on a life of its own. For the most part, it is possible to imagine that the creatures the children encounter there are projections of their own imaginations. But at times the children are surprised – and at one point, even saved – by the actions of these imaginary beings.
Those quibbles aside, the film is still a reasonably faithful adaptation of Katherine Paterson’s original novel, which won the Newbery Medal for children’s literature in 1978.
The story concerns a boy named Jess Aarons (Josh Hutcherson), who has both artistic and athletic aspirations: he loves to draw, and he wants to be the fastest boy in school. Jess doesn’t get along with the other boys at school, and at home he is surrounded by girls: two bossy older sisters, a clingy younger sister named May Belle (Bailee Madison), and a baby. As Jess puts it at one point, “I’ve got four [sisters], and I’d trade them all for a good dog.”
No sooner has the school year begun, though, than Jess meets a fellow misfit: a girl named Leslie Burke (AnnaSophia Robb) whose parents recently moved in next door to the Aarons family. It isn’t long before Jess and Leslie start hanging out – and when they discover a rope dangling over a creek, they use it to swing across to the forest on the other side.
Leslie, ever the imaginative one, suggests that she and Jess pretend this forest is a kingdom named Terabithia – a name that is probably subconsciously derived from the land of Terabinthia in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books. (In Paterson’s novel, Leslie is a fan of Narnia and gives Lewis’ books to Jess, to help him imagine what their kingdom should be like.)
There, in their dilapidated treehouse ‘fortress,’ Jess and Leslie devise ways to cope with the various problems in their life, such as a domineering bully named Janice Avery (Lauren Clinton). They also forge a friendship that is so close and compelling that you really feel the shock and the loss when tragedy strikes – not in Terabithia, but in the real world.
The film taps into spiritual themes, though not as well as it could have. Paterson herself is a former missionary to Japan, and she has written a few books on religious matters with her husband, a retired Presbyterian pastor – so it is not surprising that Bridge to Terabithia also includes hints of religious awe, especially in a scene where Leslie visits Jess’s church.
In the book, Leslie’s enthusiasm for the story of Jesus – which she has never heard before – is explicitly linked to her love of the Narnia books, and implicitly rooted in her own spiritual sensibility. When she and Jess pretend that they are king and queen of Terabithia, they “pray” to the “spirits” there, as part of their imaginary duties. While some parents have objected to these scenes, they do suggest that Leslie’s fantasy life is rooted in something deeper.
The film, however, leaves the ‘spirits’ out altogether, so when Leslie visits church and takes a sunbeam back to the forest with her, it could almost give you the impression that churches and stained-glass windows are little more than nice add-ons to an already active imagination.
Despite its flaws, Bridge to Terabithia is still a decent adaptation of Paterson’s novel, and one of the more mature children’s films in recent memory. It’s not the movie that I personally envisioned when I was an 11 year old kid who bought the book with his paper-route money; but on a certain basic emotional level, the film gets much of the story right.
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Conversations with God, now on DVD, tells the story of how Neale Donald Walsch’s life took several turns for the worse – a car accident, a broken neck, an eviction, time spent as a homeless man in Oregon looking for food in garbage bins, and so on – before a voice spoke to him, claiming to be God and dictating several best-selling books.
The ‘God’ revealed here turns out to be a pantheistic entity who allows us all to feel good about ourselves; but you’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by Henry Czerny’s performance.
The Ultimate Gift, the latest theatrical release from Fox Faith Movies, is a little like what you would get if you crossed Brewster’s Millions with David Fincher’s The Gift and filtered the resulting hybrid through the spiritually uplifting sensibility of a Billy Graham movie.
Based on a novel by motivational speaker Jim Stovall, and directed by Michael O. Sajbel (One Night with the King), the film concerns Jason Stevens (Drew Fuller), a bored young man who stands to inherit a fortune after his wealthy grandfather (James Garner) dies. But first, he has to pass a series of tests – or “gifts,” as his grandfather calls them.
These tests take Jason around the world and out of his comfort zone; and along the way, he meets several people who change his life – including a precocious girl with leukemia played by Oscar nominee Abigail Breslin of Little Miss Sunshine. It’s all very positive; but some members of the target audience may wonder if it really deserves the ‘faith label.
Cameras are now rolling on The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, and Walden Media isn’t wasting any time looking for other C.S. Lewis projects to film. The company recently announced it was teaming up with Ralph Winter – a Christian and a producer on the X-Men films, among others – to make a movie version of The Screwtape Letters.
And The Inquiry – which brings back The Passion’s Hristo Shopov as Pontius Pilate – will open April 6 (Good Friday) as a theatrical release under the FoxFaith banner. The film concerns a Roman agent who comes to Palestine to investigate claims regarding the resurrection.