If you’re planning on going to see Bridge to Terabithia, there are a couple of things about which you should probably be forewarned. The first is that contrary to what the trailers would have you believe, this is not a huge, family-oriented fantasy epic in the vain of The Chronicles of Narnia (2005). While there are some fantasy elements thrown in, they aren’t the crux of the film. Instead, most of the movie is driven by human drama. Secondly, if you plan on taking your children to see this movie, be prepared to have a long discussion on death, loss and guilt, as the entire third act of the film deals with the death of a loved one. The way the film has been marketed, the emotional impact the film might have on kids (I saw quite a few children crying their eyes out as I left the theater) could potentially take some parents by surprise. (I can only imagine how many parents have already taken their children to this movie expecting action and adventure, and then spent the rest of the day explaining that the family pet didn’t really get sent to a dog farm.)
The film is based on Katherine Paterson’s children’s book of the same name, and follows Jesse (Josh Hutcherson, RV) and his new neighbor, Leslie (AnnaSophia Robb, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). Since both are fifth-grade social outcasts, they become fast friends. In an attempt to escape the tough realities of growing up somewhat different than everyone else, the duo creates an imaginary kingdom in the woods near their house called Terabithia.
Where the film is most effective is in its ability to make Jesse and Leslie seem genuine and sympathetic. It would have been simple to make the kids seem like paper-thin caricatures of nerdy, artistic types, but instead the characters have a good bit of depth to them. For them, it’s never as simple as wanting to fit in and be popular; instead it’s about the more complex need to simply connect with others on a more personal level. Even the adult characters are more than just the “mean dad” or the “shrewlike teacher.” They all have their reasons for acting as they do rather than simply fitting a stereotype.
Where the film becomes slightly uneven, however, is in its tragic ending. While I’ve never read the book the film is based on, it’s my understanding that the movie remains loyal to the source material in this regard. Having only seen the film though, the tug-at-your-heartstrings plot twist seems tacked on (not to mention obvious and trite). It’s almost as if no one had any idea how to end the story the way it was headed, and dragged in the tragedy just to give the film a point. Add some heavy-handed religiosity (which one would assume is courtesy of Walden Media) that comes out of nowhere, and much of the ending seems out of place.
This is unfortunate because the filmmakers manage to squeeze a good bit of emotional punch out of the material throughout much of the film without being too sappy. Terabithia is one of those rare family movies that manages to be pleasant and well-intentioned without being saccharine—and has enough sense to praise creativity and imagination above all else. Rated PG for thematic elements including bullying, some peril and mild language.
—reviewed by Justin Souther