The raw, honest emotion in the family/fantasy drama Bridge to Terabithia stems from a strong story and great star-making performances from two gifted young actors. This rare cinematic experience is rooted in Katherine Paterson’s novel of the same title, which won the 1978 Newbery Medal for best children's novel. Her son David co-wrote the screenplay with Jeff Stockwell (Wilder Days, which also starred Hutcherson).
Josh Hutcherson (Zathura, RV) plays Jesse Aarons, a budding artist who lives on a farm with four sisters. “I’d trade all my sisters for a good dog,” says Jesse. His younger sister May Belle, played by another rising child star, Bailee Madison, also plays a key role. Other challenges at home include Jesse’s desire for more attention/affection from his fairly distant, but well meaning father, played by Robert Patrick. Jesse doesn’t have much motivation at school either until a new teacher Miss Edmonds, played by Zooey Deschanel (Elf), shows considerable interest in his artistic endeavors. “Don’t let the other kids get in your way,” she tells Jesse.
Jesse also receives some much needed support from a new girl in school named Leslie Burke, well played by AnnaSophia Robb (Because of Winn-Dixie, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). She’s chastised for not having a television in her house and prevented from using the restroom by a large bully named Janice, but she never loses her resolve. “We need to find someplace better than just not being at school,” Leslie advises Jesse. Leslie leads Jesse across a creek on a magical rope into an enchanted world called Terabithia. “Close your eyes and keep your mind wide open,” she says to Jesse.
The script eases into the more imaginative film elements beginning with the creative drawings at the opening credits then expanding even further than the book did. “We can do anything here,” says Leslie. Jesse eventually shares Leslie’s love for life as he builds more confidence in his abilities. “What’s so great about being serious all the time?” he exclaims. He even finds unlikely allies with other supporting characters like Jesse’s “Monster Mouth” teacher.
Gabor Csupo (creator/producer extraordinaire of the Rugrats, Simpsons, and Wild Thornberries) connects in this first directing attempt. Csupo blends the fantasy animation elements with the live action well, creating comfort in closed spaces and tension in open wooded areas.
This highly recommended film is rated PG for thematic elements and mild peril. Disney and Walden Media have truly made something special. It’s not overwrought or melodramatic. It’s disappointing that these types of films seem almost anti-establishment now amid fields of movies in the action/sci-fi/thriller genre. Children’s book adaptations don’t always translate into box office gold (e.g. Hoot, How to Eat Fried Worms), but Hollywood needs these worthwhile films for their audiences, not their pocketbooks.