It seems February, with the focus on the Oscars--and the interminable wait for spring--brings out serious family film fare. All four movies reviewed here can be classified as family films, but none of them are "kiddie" films. All deal with serious subject matter, except for "Epic Movie," which takes serious subject matter and serves it sliced and diced.
You may have heard by now that "Bridge to Terabithia" is a charming movie about the power of imagination. You’ve probably also figured out that the producers asked reviewers not to reveal the major plot twist, and I don’t know if this request has served them well or not. I’ve gotten quite a few emails from parents who know I screen films, asking what the "dark turn" is. And I’ve got to tell you, a “dark turn” in a film can mean a lot of disturbing things these days. On the other hand, I heard of some kids who learned what this dark turn is, but since reviewers don’t discuss it and how it’s handled, they’re afraid to go to the film.
So, feeling it needs to be discussed, I will be vague and say that one of the film’s characters dies an unexpected accidental death. It’s the unexpected part with which I have a quibble. The book, "Bridge to Terabithia," is the journey of one young man’s road to adulthood. And, as in all well-written books, the major events are foreshadowed. It doesn’t quite have the blunt opening line of "Love Story," say, but you pretty much can tell what’s coming and how it affected the lead character and drove him to tell the story.
On the other hand, in the film, the death seems completely out of the blue. There’s no set up at all. It happens off screen and you never see a body or a funeral, so in a way it seems more like an academic plot point than an emotional one. Both my kids were perplexed rather than disturbed by it. Therefore, neither of them thought that was what the film was really about, because they couldn’t relate. (They also both wanted a sequel with the lost person now alive and well in the imaginary kingdom.)
In a way it's good, since the film is about a lot of terrific things that do deserve more focus. It’s about the power of imagination, the power of friendship, the realization that everyone around you--including your friends, siblings, teachers, parents, even the bullies--have whole lives you likely know little about. But mostly, the Kingdom of Terabithia is the Kingdom of the Imagination, where the two lead children have the power to become the people they once only imagined they might be.
"Bridge to Terabithia" is a well-made movie, and I do recommend it for children as young as nine. Oddly, I wish the death had been more affecting. But the way it is, it’s a movie about the magic of imagination that shouldn’t give anybody bad dreams--and just might lead to the development of a few more backyard kingdoms of enchantment.
"Amazing Grace" is probably the best possible movie that could be made about the passing of a bill in parliament. In that sentence lies both the delight and challenge of the film. While it is certainly a biography of English reformer William Wilberforce and the story of how slave trade was eventually outlawed by England (decades before it was in America, embarrassingly enough), it is structurally the story of the constant defeat and final passing of the bill outlawing slavery. Sort of "1776" without the music. (Well, okay, there is this one song.)
But the delight of the film is how terrifically it’s made. The actors, led by Ioan Gruffudd, are fantastic, and the direction of Michael Apted is inspired. Usually movies that feature characters that are driven by a specific faith are made with either apology or bluster by artists of that faith. In this circumstance, while Wilberforce’s strong Christian faith certainly drives him, you see his faith in the context of who he is, what the fabric of society is, and the conflicts it brings the character both internally and externally.
Faith becomes the fabric of the film. And scenes of faith that could be painfully direct with lesser actors somehow become so universal and inspiring that filmgoers of other faiths will likely be able to identify.
The script by Steven Knight is also terrific . It bounces between three time frames, which are mostly kept straight by Wilberforce's physical health status. Finally, the film tells the story of how hard it is to fight for something you believe in when the victory is not swift and decisive, but drawn out and debilitating--and how crucially important it is not to give up. It also looks at the issue of slavery, which, chillingly, is still an issue alive today.
The film doesn’t actually take you into the lives of slaves or onto a ship filled with humans for sale. Because this is a movie of ideas and not an action film, kids below middle school age might find it boring. But viewers of any faith who want to be stirred to act on their principles will find encouragement. It’s also a strong reminder that the world doesn’t usually change for the better by accident. It takes faith, dedication, and perseverance.