Magnificently adapted from the acclaimed Katherine Paterson novel, “Bridge to Terabithia” is an enticingly unique children’s fantasy. Outstanding performances by child stars AnnaSophia Robb and Josh Hutcherson drive the film, which delves into the world of imagination, fantasy and the circumvention of unpleasant realities. The staggeringly tragic elements in the film are almost too morose for younger audiences, but brings with it meaningful lessons in morality, values and acknowledgement for the importance of friendships.
The fastest kid in the fifth grade, Jess (Josh Hutcherson), reluctantly befriends the new student Leslie (AnnaSophia) when they realize they are not only neighbors, but comparable outsiders in their class. Encountering the typical struggles of elementary school kids, such as bullies and not fitting in with the “cool” kids, Leslie teaches Jess to use his imagination more frequently to escape whatever unpleasantries he might face. Together they convert a debilitated, abandoned tree-house deep in the forest into their own magical kingdom named Terabithia, and they visit it each day to daydream and live out their fantasies as noble rulers of their realm. When tragic events disrupt their peaceful play, newfound lessons in believing the impossible help them overcome utter heartbreak.
The two stars AnnaSophia Robb (who you may recognize from 2005’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and Josh Hutcherson are markedly phenomenal and embody Paterson’s characters with such authenticity and sincerity that your eyes will be glued to the screen. You feel for these characters, relate to them and recognize their reasoning. Their adolescent imaginations are inspirational and memorable, as they realize that conceiving a fictitious world to govern is a harmless escape from reality that fuels their creativity and happiness. Several of the other characters, including their classmates and Josh’s father (Robert Patrick, the T-1000) are properly stereotypical; we see every familiar niche from school, including the bullies, the cool kids, and the nerds. These patterned figures enhance our understanding for Leslie and Jess, solidify their outsider stances, and justify nearly all of their actions. Zooey Deschanel plays Miss Edmunds, the music teacher, who classically and humorously creates a love triangle for Jess. Entranced by his teacher, and later blaming himself for inconsiderately trying to spend time with her as opposed to Leslie, this innocent crush adds to the realism of the 11-year-old’s mindset.
In the film, Leslie dubs their imaginary kingdom “Terabithia” which is supposedly a made-up name devised on the spur of the moment. However, one of the aspects the film leaves out, probably to avoid any comparisons to the incredibly popular Chronicles of Narnia, is that Leslie has read and enjoyed Narnia and other C.S. Lewis stories, and designs her kingdom around the ground-rules set forth in those books. One of Lewis’ stories contains an island named Terebinthia, which Leslie purportedly would have subconsciously borrowed when naming the magical land. (There is also a tree found in the bible called a terebinth tree, so Lewis may not have been all that original either.)
For anyone who has read the novel and enjoyed it, this film is an amazingly faithful adaptation, and will certainly appeal to those existing fans. More interestingly though, will be the reactions of newcomers who are not yet familiar with the events of the story. It’s difficult to discuss the film without giving away major plot points, and ironically the filmmakers sent out publications and press kits with written pleas to journalists not to give away those monumental details. The story is well worth reading, and the movie well worth watching, targeting families and more specifically elementary school students. My advice is to simply see the film for yourself, as it is loaded with thought-provoking themes and morals that may be difficult to discuss and easier to watch through the use of this revelatory visual delight.