When I first saw the trailer for Bridge to Terabithia, you could almost hear me groan. It isn't that the movie appeared to be bad — it looked like a decent fantasy film — it's more that it looked like I had already seen it. The trailer made the movie look like The Chronicles of Narnia: Part 2. Considering that I enjoyed, but was ultimately lukewarm to, that feature, it did not bode well for this family fantasy feature. What I got was not so much a fantasy yarn with mythical creatures and swordplay and magic, as a story of youth struggling to deal with harsh realities escaping into the realm of imagination. It offers up a lot of heart, touches on serious issues, and while leaving you with hope, doesn't wrap everything up in a neat package.
Jesse is a fifth grade outsider, a young artist who finds solace in a pencil. He is picked on rather mercilessly by bullies, and at home he struggles with his older sisters, and an overworked father. His young life is thrown for a loop when Leslie moves in next door; she too is an artist, a writer. Like Jesse, she is picked on for being different. The two are kindred spirits, and they soon find themselves escaping into an imaginary world where they can control what is happening, something they lack in the real world.
It may be a story about struggling to deal with the real world, and have that fantasy world to control, but it is not about the effects to create the fantasy world. As Jesse and Leslie create a friendship, they find a commonality in a vivid imagination, an common gift that is put to use. They have created a world to play in that takes them away from the troubles of their lives, but it is more than that. The imaginary world helps build them up in a way to be able to process the troubles of reality, from absentee parents, to bullies, to an overworked father.
Bridge to Terabithia is a film of subtle beauty. It is a family film that isn't dumbed down and it doesn't disrespect the audience's intelligence. I sat in the theater, completely held by the events as they unfolded; from the gradual creation of Terabithia, to the realistic portrayal of his school and family life, everything just felt so real. It is the rare family film, at least recently, that has any sort of depth.
I cannot adequately convey how much I enjoyed this film. I loved how the effects were used in small doses, how the characters felt genuine, how the script wasn't dumbed down, how everything wasn't wrapped up nice and neat, and especially how it seemed completely real. All too often we get family movies like Deck the Halls or Arthur and the Invisibles; it is much more rare to get a family film that has the strength of its convictions. There is a heart and a spirit in this film that brings it to life, it is vibrant and emotional, and all those things I walked in thinking it was not going to be.