Four Family Films from Disney
Bridge to Terabithia (June 13/07)
Based on the acclaimed children's novel by Katherine Paterson, Bridge to Terabithia follows two alienated youths (Josh Hutcherson's Jesse and AnnaSophia Robb's Leslie) as they escape from their various problems by conjuring up a fantasy world called Terabithia. It's a flawed premise that surely worked better on the page, as one simply can't help but wonder just how the two characters are able to simultaneously envision the same imaginary creatures. The inclusion of several less-than-subtle elements - ie the tough-as-nails bully who turns out to have a heart of gold - doesn't help matters, and it becomes increasingly clear that the film has little to offer viewers over a certain age. That being said, the performances are undeniably impressive (Robert Patrick's work as Jesse's stern father is an obvious highlight) and there's a third-act twist that brings some much-needed gravity to the proceedings. It's the effectiveness of the latter that keeps Bridge to Terabithia from becoming an all-out waste of time, and it's ultimately impossible not to wish that the remainder of the film had been imbued with a similar vibe of heart and authenticity.
Writing a review of Chestnut almost seems pointless, as the film has unabashedly been geared towards small children - most of whom will undoubtedly thrill to the various characters' over-the-top antics - and it's consequently difficult to get worked up over the filmmakers' flat-out refusal to include anything of interest for adults. That being said, the presence of several familiar faces (ie Barry Bostwick, Ethan Phillips, Abigail Breslin, etc) within the cast and a cute subplot involving a pair of well-meaning would-be parents goes a long way towards ensuring that the whole thing is never quite as interminable as it probably should have been. The story revolves around two orphaned little girls (Makenzie Vega's Sal and Breslin's Ray) who must keep their dog a secret from their adoptive parents (Christine Tucci's Laura and Justin Louis' Matt), after learning that Matt is fiercely allergic to animals and that their new building doesn't allow pets. The undeniably preposterous premise certainly plays a substantial role in Chestnut's ultimate failure, as the film stretches the limits of credibility time and time again (ie nobody would be able to keep a great dane secret for months, let alone two tiny kids). That the movie eventually morphs into a flat-out ripoff of Home Alone in its third act, with said great dane laying traps for a pair of broadly inept criminals, cements its status as an egregiously juvenile piece of work.
Darby O'Gill and the Little People (June 17/07)
Though Darby O'Gill and the Little People is saddled with premise that's almost egregiously lightweight, the film does manage to win the viewer over with its myriad of small charms - with Sean Connery's small supporting role certainly one of the more overt examples of this. The story follows a genial Scot (Albert Sharpe's Darby O'Gill) as he instigates a minor war with the King of the Leprechauns (Jimmy O'Dea); Janet Munro co-stars as Katie, Darby's long-suffering daughter, while Connery pops up as potential love interest Michael McBride. It's the subplot revolving around Katie and Michael's tentative romance that initially keeps things interesting, as there's really not a whole lot within the central storyline to hold the viewer's attention; this is in spite of a lively, exuberant performance by Sharpe that almost makes up for the surprisingly lackluster opening hour, which is seemingly devoted entirely to sequences in which Darby sings and dances. The dark and genuinely creepy third act leaves Darby O'Gill and the Little People on a far more positive note than one might've expected, and there's no denying that the film is ultimately an entertaining (if all-too-slight) piece of work.
Where the Red Fern Grows (June 19/07)
Where the Red Fern Grows, based on the novel by Wilson Rawls, follows a Depression-era young boy (Joseph Ashton's Billy Coleman) as he saves up for (and eventually buys) a pair of hunting dogs, with the majority of the film revolving around their subsequent misadventures and shenanigans. Infused with a leisurely paced by directors Lyman Dayton and Sam Pillsbury, Where the Red Fern Grows certainly possesses the feel of an old-fashioned, family-friendly tale (ie Old Yeller or The Yearling) - ensuring that, at the very least, the movie can be comfortably watched by viewers of all ages (although, admittedly, a pivotal moment is rendered unintelligible due to the filmmakers' reluctance to show violence). And while there aren't a whole lot of surprises to be found during the 86-minute running time (the extraordinarily downbeat conclusion notwithstanding), the film's sweet, downright earnest vibe becomes increasingly difficult to resist. The inclusion of several genuinely moving sequences - coupled with the presence of such actors as Dabney Coleman and Ned Beatty among the supporting cast - ultimately cements Where the Red Fern Grows' status as an above-average piece of work, and it seems likely that fans of Rawls' book will find plenty to embrace here.