Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Bridge to Terabithia: spoiler-heavy review/reflection

Pre-spoiler part: on the strength of the trailers and glowing reviews, I planned to take my two younger children Jonathan (7) and Josiah (11) to see this. It looked like a lot of fun.

Then I saw a thread on FreeRepublic titled "Bridge to Terabithia" PARENTAL WARNING! SPOILERS! (And do be warned: it's a very spoilery thread.)

Now, I have a very strong opinion about spoilers. I think delilberately springing uninvited spoilers on someone is immoral. I think it is wrong to "spoil" something for someone else. It's like theft: it steals the pleasure of discovery, surprise, delight that they would have had.

It also is a form of theft of the artist. I remember a short story I wrote once with a surprise twist at the end. I gave it to a friend to read. He turned immediately to the last page, and read the last line aloud. I wanted to strangle him. Why had I bothered to craft that whole story, to do the intricate buildup, only to have some _____ short-circuit it all?

Like I said. "A very strong opinion."

But on the other hand, when it comes to my kids, I will sometimes expose myself, if it means taking a "hit" so they don't. So when I saw this, I very reluctantly read; and I'm glad I did.

This is like "Million Dollar Baby" all over again, in that it is advertised as one kind of movie, but actually is a very different movie.

So, be warned, after this there be spoilers.

Spoiler-ridden review

The movie is based on a book I have not read. It stars AnnaSophia Robb and some guy.

AnnaSophia Robb is a lovely young actress with a 100-gigawatt smile and eyes like saucers. She was winsome in "Because of Winn-Dixie," and she's terrific in this. She plays Leslie Burke, who's new in town and friendless. Not for long. She befriends a repressed underdog named Jessie Aarons, and they forge a warm and fun friendship.

The "some guy" who plays Jesse is Josh Hutcherson. His character calls for him to be largely inward, subdued, smoldering, subdermal; and he's certainly all of that. Jesse loves to draw, and his hardware-store dad does not "get" him. He's got like forty-seven sisters, all of whom seem always to be angry at each other except his little sister, who's a cutie.

Leslie and Jesse both run afoul of bullies both male and female, and they band together and bully back. Jesse also has a crush on his music teacher, played by Zooey Deschanel.

"Okay," you're asking, if you've only seen the trailers and the poster. "So when do they enter this magical kingdom and have wonderful, heartlifting adventures like in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe?"


Oh, they do use their imagination, and their imaginations are given CGI life. Those scenes are fun, they're well-done, and they're relatively fleeting.

"Fleeting?" you say. "But this is an adventure-fantasy movie! I saw the trailers!"

Yeah, except no. It isn't an adventure-fantasy movie at all. It's sort of a coming-of-age drama and tragedy.

"Tragedy?" you gulp. "I was going to take my kids."

Yeah, I know. A lot of parents took their kids for a fun, escapist afternoon at the movies, drawn in by Disney's very deceptive ad campaign. I heard those parents audibly gasp when Jesse's father tells him that his friend is dead, that she died trying to swing across on the rope they used to get into their imaginary kingdom together. The rope broke, she may have struck her head. She drowned. Dead, for keeps.

"Wait. You heard them gasp? You mean, you took your kids anyway?"

Yes, I did. I read more about the movie, and decided to handle it differently than usual. I talked to my two boys and, for the first time in their lives, spoiled a movie for them. I told them:
  1. We get to know two kids, a boy and a girl, and the girl dies very sadly.
  2. We get to know two families, one Christian and one not Christian, and the Christian family is made to look bad.
I swore them not to breathe a word about this in the theater (no spoilers!), and said we'd talk afterwards.

How did it go?

First, it is a very good movie. Apart from the fact that pretty girls aren't generally friendless for long in schools, their friendship is credible and involving. The movie puts up a complex patchwork of personalities and issues, not too heavy, but not too formulaic. The viewer is definitely drawn in.

And "the sad part" (as we called it) is very sad. I don't mind telling you that the handkerchief came out twice. Mine, not the boys'. Tears were rolling freely down my cheeks for about the last fifteen minutes. Maybe I'm getting soft in my old age, but there it is.

Forewarned, the boys were not traumatized nor depressed, and we had a good talk afterwards. Josiah couldn't believe how deceptive the ads were.

Within the movie, though, here's what bothered me the most.

The Christian family was portrayed as bickering, loveless, and borderline dysfunctional. Except for a little secular "redemption" at the end, the father was a boilerplate neglectful, distant, clueless, angry dad. There wasn't a wiff of Gospel about the family either collectively or individually.

Leslie invites herself to church with Jesse (he doesn't broach the subject to her). They talk on the way back. Jesse is unable to tell her much of anything about Christianity, and the little girl basically tells Leslie that she's going to Hell. Then after Leslie dies, Jesse sobbingly asks his dad if Leslie has gone to Hell.

Dad (who now is showing his decent side) says something like: "I don't know much about all this, but I can't imagine God sending a sweet little girl like that to Hell."

And there you go. The father has nothing to give but sentimental guesswork. He can't reassure his son that God is holy and merciful, that He will certainly do the right thing. He can't point Jesse to Christ, can't say that this reminds us how short life is, how dear Christ must be, how earnest we must be about telling others of His love. He can't give it, because he doesn't have it to give. He's a Hollywood-approved "Christian" dad.

So here is yet another professedly Christian family, broken and clueless; another non-Christian family, warm and loving and open. The movie's "Hollywood-gospel" call is given by Leslie, and echoed by Jesse at the end: "Keep your mind wide open."

"He wasn't a very good friend to her," I told my boys. "She was asking questions about God and the Bible, and he didn't have any answers for her." He couldn't tell her how she could know God, or didn't care to.

Jesse didn't, Jesse's dad didn't, I guess his mom and shallow older sisters didn't. It's just another "Christian" Gospel-free family, brought to us by Hollywood. I think back on "A River Runs Through It." Gorgeous movie, interesting story, well-acted, drove me nuts. About a pastor and his two sons. Pastor-dad doesn't even so much as mention the Gospel, even in passing, ever, that I recall. Reads poetry from his pulpit. Poetry! Boys don't even bother to indicate that they've rejected anything, because nothing is presented to reject.

The author of The Bridge to Terabithia is Katherine Paterson, who professes Christian faith. She says,
I wrote Bridge because our son David's best friend, an eight-year-old named Lisa Hill, was struck and killed by lightning. I wrote the book to try to make sense out of a tragedy that seemed senseless.
I can't possibly judge the book by the movie. A parent who was there remarked that the last twenty minutes were exactly like the book.

I don't know what "sense" the movie makes of Leslie's sad, sad death. Christian Dad says it makes no sense. Someone (I think the music teacher) tells Jess to keep Leslie alive in his memories. He then revisits his imaginary kingdom, this time with his little sister. He envisions all sorts of fantastic beings in Terabithia.

Leslie is not among them.

I'll just say that, if the movie is true to the book, the author portrayed the kind of Christian family Hollywood is comfortable with: dysfunctional, with no credible nor compelling—nor threatening—Christian witness.

So there it is. I loved the actors, I liked the movie, I hated the ad campaign, and I hate Hollywood's general inability (or unwillingness) to find screenwriters who can write a genuine, credible Christian character. These families represent Hollywood's view of Christians, and of themselves. I can understand that. I saw things that way once myself. But that all changed.

POSTSCRIPT: to be very clear, I am not saying that all Christian families are loving and speak in Bible verses, nor am I saying that all non-Christian families are horrid and hateful. But can't some Christian families make it to the movies with their Christian faith intact, identifiable, and on-display?


John Hollandsworth said...

Yea, Disney knew it couldn't pack people into see a kids movie that tackled serious issues seriously, so they advertised the movie differently. (hmmm....sounds like a lot of church ad campaigns, doesn't it???)

The only thing I would say different about the movie is that I saw it as two non-Christian families--- one religious, one not religious, dealing with death, and that's what I talked with my kids about after the movie, about Genesis 2, about the fall, about sin, and about Christ's redemption. I want more movies like this, that lets me cry (yes I cried too, Dan) and talk to my kids about the things of God at a higher level than (shudder!) High School Musical.

Kim said...

We read the book out loud this year, and from what I saw of the trailers, there is far more about hte fantasy world of Terebitha in the movie than there is in the book. The focus of the book is not the fantasy world, but rather the way Leslie helps Jesse come out of his shell and enlarge his world a little.

I'm not sure I'll see it. I hate it when a movie spoiles a book for me.

DJP said...

Good point, John, but it is presented as a Christian, churchgoing family.

Kim, I'd say that's also pretty much the emphasis of the movie. It's the ADS that make it look like it's all about this fantasy world.

candy said...

Knowing Hollywood. Yep, they will portray a loving Christian family someday, but guaranteed it will be homosexual, warm, loving parents with a well adjusted child cuz the gay agenda is to infiltrate the Church, and what movie nowadays do you see that doesn't have a major gay character portrayed as one of the best characters in the movie? This issue is one of my pet peeves.

LeeC said...

How sad.
I was just thinking about how if they were to make a movie about Christians it should be about Rachel Clayton.

But I don't want to think about how Hollywood would portray her and her family.

C.T. Lillies said...

The sad thing is that this is the best Hollywood can do. And the Disney autoclave pretty well sterilizes the life out of any 'christian' cough Narnia cough... movie it might make.
"...the word of God is not bound."
--2 Timothy 2:9

donsands said...

I remember crying when Pollyanna fell out of the tree.
Disney knows how to makes us cry.

Mx5 said...

2nd attempt at a comment *rolling eyes*

I took my 2 younger kids, after reading Focus on the Family's "Plugged In" review, and found that I wept at the end of the movie while they just watched. Those little napkins one gets with the popcorn don't work well at dabbing at potentially running mascara!

I noticed most of the adults in the theater were crying.

As a major sci-fi fantasy fan, I, too, was disappointed in Disney's marketing of this movie. I was really hoping for many more cool creatures and settings. I should have read the book first!

As for what some in the Christian community might object to in terms of how Jess' family was portrayed, sadly it is more accurate that we want to admit. It's the elephant in the living room of most Christian families... how we treat our kids, handle stress, look at life.

Now, I wouldn't say I think Jess' family was necessarily that of "believers" per se, but they were "religious". Regardless, from my husband's many years of ministry to youth and families, I would say that a majority of even believing families would fall more into Jess' family's portrayal than that of Leslie's family. Sad! We of all people should be dancing in our living rooms with the joy of our salvation, and treasuring our children for the gifts they are, in spite of life's many pressures.

I loved Leslie's line, when Jess and May Belle were talking about how they had to believe in Jesus, but didn't like the story of His death and resurrection, and she said something like, "I don't have to believe it and I think it's beautiful".

I think many of us get so bogged down in the pressures and responsibilities of every day life that we forget the beauty of the gospel.

'Just my 2 cents' worth!

Kim said...

Kim, I'd say that's also pretty much the emphasis of the movie. It's the ADS that make it look like it's all about this fantasy world.

I suppose that's what would attract young kid into seeing the movie. Was the mother depicted as rather uncaring? She was in the book.

Rebecca Stark said...

I haven't seen the movie, and I won't, so I can't say how accurate the movie is to the book.

The line you mention about God not sending a sweet little girl like that to hell goes something like this (and it's the grandfather who says it, I believe): "God ain't gonna send no itty-bitty girl to hell."

So I'd say that the idea, in the book, is more an age of accountability than the idea that she was "sweet" as the basis for her entrance to heaven. Still not right, but different.

I've found this book good, but a little troubling in it's theology. Bbptut it did give good opportunity to discuss important things with kids.

By the way, Katherine Paterson has another book that has the gospel in it straight up, and a portrayal of very sympathetic Christian characters: The Great Gilly Hopkins.

T.J.L. said... I know what happens. Why didn't you warn me?

Friar Ted said...

Jesse's Mother, and in fact all the adults, are portrayed much more deeply in the movie than they are in the book. The book is written from Jesse's POV (tho not in first-person) so there's a tone of childish superficial disrespect for everyone he doesn't relate well to, which is everyone except Leslie, her parents, the music teacher & finally MaryBelle his little sister. Fortunately we see him starting to outgrow that through the book.

Why doesn't the movie present a good Christian family? Well, they're better than they are in the book. Why didn't the movie give a clear Gospel message? Because it was faithful to the book. There are some good Biblical reasons to think Leslie would be in Heaven but the book didn't make them, nor is it Disney/Walden's place to change the book to make them. It's up to Christian parents who take their kids to this movie (and I think they should) to do so. Alas, many Christian parents are as ill-equipped as Jesse's Dad was. I daresay, the Dad's response is the same as the vast majority of Christian parents would have.

Rileysowner said...

I saw this not to long back, and I also loved the movie, found the advertising very misleading, and the portrayal of Christians as flat and about as un-Christian as they can get.

Sadly, there are probably lots of people who call themselves Christian who are exactly like that family, except they probably have less children.

I cannot remember the line, but while riding home from church in the back of the truck Leslie is talking about how much she loved what she saw/heard at church while the supposed Christians all hate it. What a great time to that would have been to share the gospel, but not even a mention of it. Sad really, but what else would be expected from a nominally Christian culture that long ago forgot that Christianity is about the good news of Jesus, not just morality or social action.

Oh, I cried too, and probably would again if I see this movie again.

Anonymous said...

I wish you wouldn't try to warp the minds of "your boys." The message of the movie was obviously lost on you. Your mind is closed.

Anonymous said...

Reading these comments made me feel both anger and pity. candyinsierras, especially, displays the gross ignorance and stupidity expected of Christians and the religious in general.

I truly pity you.

DJP said...

Warp how? Ignorance of what? Stupidity about what? Pity why?

Anonymous said...

Such intolerance and hate. Are you a Christophobe?