This movie spoke to me for a number of reasons. It spoke to me as a former grade schooler caught under the oppression of bullies. It spoke to me as a former lonely kid that had few friends. It spoke to me as the only boy in a family of girls, and as a kid who was desperate not to disappoint his parents. And it spoke to me as someone who, as a kid, had a large inner world that offered escape. All these things are part and parcel to the charm of Bridge to Terabithia, the latest success from the collaboration between Disney and Walden Media, makers of The Chronicles of Narnia.
Based on the book by Katherine Paterson, Terabithia is the name of a magical land conceived by two fifth graders named Jesse (Josh Hutcherson) and Leslie (AnnaSpohia Robb). Jesse is the third of five children to a poor farm family and is constantly being picked on for his hand-me downs and shabby appearance. Leslie is the new girl in school that’s also in the crosshairs of the bullies for her enthusiasm and the fact that her writer parents don’t own a TV. Naturally these two social outcasts bond and find an escape in a land across the creek filled with magical creatures and exciting adventures. But of course it’s not an escape for long as real world concerns weigh on Jesse especially and a tragedy alters life in Terabithia forever.
Movies like this are rare because in it we get to see kids acting like kids. Obviously director Gabor Csupo is reaching into his years of experience working on Nickelodeon’s Rugrats to know how to appeal to that segment and it works. Hutcherson and Robb are so great in the lead roles, especially Hutcherson who has to play a lot of conflicting emotion as he’s being pulled between Leslie’s fantasy and his father’s reality. Needless to say, without the great chemistry between these two young leads, the emotional punch in the third act wouldn’t create the impact it does, and I have to say that I think a lot of the people in the audience, and not just the kids, would agree.
There are some special effects in the movie too, but not so many that they overwhelm the story. At times, Csupo seems as if he could almost get by without them, as some scenes are carried by the kids’ own sense of enthusiasm and imagination minutes before we actually get to see what they see. Csupo’s also good at creating a sense of intrigue and puts forth a kind of ambivalence about whether it’s all in their head or if there’s some kind of magical reality afoot. Regardless of matters of reality, the magical creatures that inhabit Terabithia are interesting and well-rendered, with obvious imagination and detail put into them.
Sure, Bridge to Terabithia is a children’s movie, but I think that adults will get as much out of it as the kids. It’s classic fantasy that is neither cynical nor derivative with a universal appeal and timelessness quality. This is a worthy addition to the family movie canon.