A Reel View: Bridge to Terabithia

A Reel View
Bridge to Terabithia

Bridge to Terabithia is an example of a movie that does not deliver what the marketing campaign promises. Instead, it delivers something richer and more meaningful. Disney, in its infinite wisdom, is trying to make the film look like a watered down Harry Potter or Chronicles of Narnia. While there are elements of fantasy within the story, they exist to support Bridge to Terabithia's themes, not as a legitimate entity in and of themselves. This is a movie about imagination and friendship, not about swords and sorcery. Those who are familiar with Katherine Paterson's Newberry Award winning children's book will be aware of this. Those who are familiar only with the film's trailer will not.
Bridge to Terabithia illustrates that the best escape from a less-than-ideal reality is through imagination and friendship. In broad strokes, it recalls Heavenly Creatures, Pan's Labyrinth, and My Girl, but the way in which director Gabor Csupo brings the tale to life is different from each of these. The film shows how a true meeting of like minds can lead to a flight of fancy that defends against the harsh realities of school bullies, neglectful parents, and the mundane grind of chores and homework.
Jesse Aarons (Josh Hutcherson) is an artist, although none of his family members or schoolmates sees much value in his aptitude with pencil and paint. He is bullied on a frequent basis but absorbs the taunting with surprising equanimity for a 10-year old. Enter Leslie (AnnaSophia Robb), the new girl in the class. Despite being lively and energetic, she is scorned as readily as Jesse because she, like him, is an artist. Her particular discipline is writing. At first, Jesse is nearly as hostile toward her as his classmates but their similar inclinations leads to an eventual friendship. Soon, they are doing everything together and their explorations of the woods lead them to a place they call Terabithia.
Terabithia is a creation of their imaginations where tree houses become fortresses, trees become giant trolls, and squirrels are vicious man-eaters. When they're in Terabithia, the world behind them fades away and they can relish each other's company and enjoy the adventures they script along the way. Soon, the complexion of the real world brightens a little. Jesse softens in his attitude toward his little sister, May Belle (Bailee Madison). Leslie's parents finish writing their book and pay more attention to her. And a helpful music teacher, Ms. Edmonds (Zooey Deschanel), discovers Jesse's artistic ability and helps him to nurture it.
Although the movie is presented through the eyes of fifth graders and is entirely suitable for younger viewers, the themes are mature and fully developed. Adults will find much truth in what Bridge to Terabithia offers. This is not a shallow motion picture that plays only to a narrow age range. There is manipulation, but it is artfully done, and the movie doesn't resort to the kind of easy conclusion one might expect. Bridge to Terabithia ends on a hopeful note, but it does not make everything "all right" - even in the land of make-believe.
The two young actors, Josh Hutcherson (Zathura) and AnnaSophia Robb (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), are effective. A lot rides on these two. For the film to work, we have to believe in the characters and their friendship. They succeed. Introvert Jesse and extrovert Leslie come vividly to life under their stewardships. The supporting cast members stay in the background until called upon to make a contribution. Zooey Deschanel, Robert Patrick (as Jesse's overworked father), and young Bailee Madison provide admirable performances.
Despite what Disney is promising, Bridge to Terabithia is not filled with special effects. When employed, the CGI works, but it's not used often. Terebithia is a land of imagination and, for the most part, Csupo keeps it that way. The movie is magical but not in the same sense that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is. Bridge to Terabithia touches the heart without pulling too hard at the strings, and it reminds us that creativity should be encouraged in children, if only to give them a temporary refuge into which they can retreat when the colors of reality turn gray. This is easily the best family feature of the early year.