Title: Bridge to Terabithia
Genre: Adventure, Drama, Family
Play time: 1h 36min
Director: Gabor Csupo
Screenwriters: Jeff Stockwell, David Paterson
Starring: Josh Hutcherson, AnnaSophia Robb, Zooey Deschanel
Harry Potter is enchanting stuff, but it has magic, and dragons, and dark lords at its disposal — it’s almost easy. Bridge to Terabithia kept a full theater of children and adults entranced without the benefit of any of that, though the marketing has tried hard to convince everyone to the contrary. Those familiar with Katherine Paterson’s wonderful novel — still widely taught in grade schools, as far as I know — may be frightened off by the trailer, which makes the film seem like a Narnia knock-off, but it’s not true: co-written by Paterson’s son David, the screenplay doesn’t bastardize Terabithia by making it any more (or less) real than the book envisions. It stays true to Paterson’s subdued, melancholy coming-of-age masterwork.
Don’t get me wrong — I love Harry Potter — but it’s so good to see this movie now. It talks to kids (and adults, too) about loss and loneliness, friendship and love, imagination, even God — and it does so quietly, gracefully, often smiling through tears. Bad things happen to the protagonists here, and Bridge to Terabithia doesn’t sugarcoat them, or allow its titular fantasy world to provide an easy out. It’s honest that way, and tough.
Jesse (Josh Hutcherson) and Leslie (AnnaSophia Robb) have a real friendship — not a calculated pairing forced on them by a screenplay, but a genuine bond forged in the grade school trenches. She’s the new girl, he’s the bullied outcast, and when she beats him in the school race — which, we gather, he’s been training for all summer — they become inseparable. Both emanate a goodness that’s absent from most of their classmates, who can be genuinely cruel.
One way in which Bridge to Terabithia is wise is in its refusal to paddle innocuous everyone-is-special pablum. “Don’t let those other kids stand in your way,” says the beloved music teacher (Zooey Deschanel) to the sharp, talented Jesse, and this seems right: we sense that Jesse and Leslie are special in ways that everyone else isn’t. We see it in the way they talk to each other and their parents, in Jesse’s artwork and Leslie’s kindness, in their ability to enter an entire world of their own creation. And through it all, they don’t seem remotely supernatural or even precocious: just eager, bright-eyed, and a bit beyond their years in the way smart kids can be. It’s rare for such young characters to be such truly compelling personalities in their own right, but they manage it.
Terabithia, of course, is the fictional world Jesse and Leslie create to combat boredom and rise above their occasionally depressing surroundings. It’s a world of ferocious monsters, goblins, and dark masters; there are castles and waterfalls, kings and queens, mythical beings. This is the source of the elaborate imagery you see in the trailer, but the film, like the book, makes it clear that Terabithia is a creature of Jesse and Leslie’s joint imagination, and indeed, that’s the entire point. Gabor Csupo, the veteran animator making his feature debut, does an admirable if imperfect job of realizing this notion: only rarely do adventures in Terabithia veer into the realm of the fantastic or implausible.
The third act may open the film up to accusations of mawkishness, and indeed, Bridge to Terabithia features a plot twist that could be at home in a much lesser film. But once one gets past the initial sucker punch, it’s handled beautifully: the last twenty minutes reveal just how seriously the movie takes its characters. What Jesse does, and what he discovers, function, in some sense, as a realization of the potential we saw in him from the beginning, coinciding with the loss of innocence that’s inevitable in these coming-of-age tales. The ending manages to be uplifting (and profoundly touching) without for a moment guaranteeing that Everything Will Now Be Okay.
I realize I’m making Bridge to Terabithia sound heady and formidable for the audience at which it’s ostensibly targeted. And it is, a little bit — certainly it’s a challenge, especially to kids weaned on more conventional forms of excitement. But it’s an appropriate one and, I should mention, one that’s never less than entertaining (as I said, the kids at my screening were raptly attentive). This is a beautiful, rare family film.