Bridge to Terabithia proves a few important things studios seem to have forgotten: you can make movies for kids without treating anyone under the age of 16 like they’re rock-stupid, and you don’t have to throw in a bunch of “edgy” ironic jokes that float over kids’ heads in order for it to appeal to adults. After watching approximately 450 trailers for kids’ movies that look godawful (Firehouse Dog, Meet the Robinsons, and especially Nancy Drew), it’s easy to appreciate the warmth and intelligence in a film like Bridge to Terabithia.
A fairly straightforward adaptation of Katherine Paterson’s 1977 novel, it tackles some pretty weighty themes of escape, grief, and human perseverance. Somehow, both the novel and the film manage to hit all the right emotional notes while managing to keep it at a level the average fifth-grader can understand. It tells the story of Jess Aarons (Josh Hutcherson, Zathura), a “farm-boy” outcast with a secret love of drawing. He has no friends, four sisters, and poor parents who barely make ends meet. After practicing all summer, Jess wants to win a race for the fifth-grade boys, but he’s forced to suffer the embarrassment of wearing pink hand-me-down sneakers. On top of that, just when it looks like he’ll win the race—the new girl, Leslie Burke (AnnaSophia Robb, Because of Winn-Dixie), breezes past him.
Their adversarial relationship turns friendly as Jess realizes Leslie lives next door, and she needs to be shown the ropes of the student hierarchy. As time passes, they become best friends partly out of necessity, but mostly because they share a deep emotional connection. This is represented by Terabithia, a fantastical kingdom conjured up in their imaginations. They just run down to the end of the dirt road, swing across the creek on an old rope, and their kingdom is there, in the isolated backwoods. Jess and Leslie use Terabithia as an escape from the oppression of school and family: it’s their place, where nobody else can find them. There, they are king and queen, with plenty of fantastical friends to help them fight their imaginary enemies. First-rate special effects blend the reality of an empty forest with a wild kingdom full of giant trolls, mutant squirrels, and tiny winged warriors.
Over the course of the film, the pair realize that they can’t hide from their problems forever. Jess and Leslie give each other much-needed confidence. Before long, they’re both confronting what they once feared, and they learn to enjoy their lives.
The film has a surprise (which is no surprise to anyone who has read the novel, but for those who haven’t, I’m withholding it) that a lesser film would have either drenched in cloying sentiment or excised completely. As with the rest of the film, screenwriters Jeff Stockwell and David Paterson (son of Ms. Paterson) and director Gabor Csupo handle these scenes with understated sensitivity and understanding. It also gives the exceptional cast, including Zooey Deschanel (Elf, All the Real Girls) and Robert Patrick (Terminator 2, The X-Files), opportunities to really shine.
Bridge to Terabithia is a wonderful, moving film for kids and adults. It’s another in Walden Media’s long line of exceptional kids’ movies (Charlotte’s Web, Holes). If more movies were this good, they’d actually be worth the $278 theatres charge for admission.