The Bridge to Terabithia is a must-see for older kids and tweens, who will forgive its narrative flaws in favor of its likable characters and imaginative story. This is not so much a coming-of-age as it is a letting-go-of-childhood message; you can retain the best parts of being a kid on your way to adulthood.
The film, directed by Gabor Csupo, from the Katherine Paterson novel, is the story of a loner kid, Jess (Josh Hutcherson) who befriends the new girl, Leslie (AnnaSophia Robb) because both are “different” from their hateful peers. He feels out of place because his parents are struggling financially (he has to wear his sister’s hand-me-down sneakers to school), she because there are brilliant people out there who start out life as nerds. They’re too cool to fit in, only they don’t realize it until public school is very far behind.
Leslie and Jess find a magical place in the woods to escape to, one that is turned magical via Leslie’s vivid imagination. She tells Jess to keep his “eyes shut” and his “mind wide open.” Eventually, he lets go of the bummer that is reality and lets himself believe in the fantasy Leslie has invented.
Another film this year that dwells in a child’s imagination as a way out of life’s more awful moments, Pan’s Labyrinth, which does anything but take the easy way out. There is the sense that Terabithia backs off a little where there should be some hard truths to swallow. For instance, Leslie herself, as realized by the stunning and charming Robb, is difficult to imagine having no friends and being a societal outcast; beauty trumps all.
Similarly, when the inevitable tragedy strikes, it is handled in overly simplistic terms. Although much of the ending is absolutely unbearable (be prepared to sob, and have your kids sob with you), it does deal with stuff worth talking about afterwards, and for that, it’s hard not to appreciate the film.
Much of the film involves Leslie and Josh taking the challenges they encounter in Terabithia and utilizing them in their real life. The school bully, for instance, seems like nothing compared to the fantasy creatures they do battle with. Both are natural targets, and thus both need special tools to cope with life.
The ending is somewhat abrupt, probably only for those who haven’t read the book. After such a delightful first two-thirds, the last third will likely leave you feeling heartbroken for a few days. But the beloved book couldn’t be altered without a lot of protest. The main idea is worth all of the pain anyway. When you create a world with your imagination, that world is always there for you whenever you need it. We need our creativity and it all starts in childhood.
It’s interesting that both Pan’s Labyrinth and Bridge to Terabithia deal with such strong subject matter. Certainly, the former is more an adult’s film than a children’s film. But in both cases, we’re seeing something of a cultural taboo of late. What happens in Terabithia is almost historic. For so long, films made here in America are required to have a happy, neatly wrapped-up ending. To hand over something, the subject of death is a step in the right direction, the one that acknowledges our kids are capable of more complex thought than the false and unrealistic idea that life always works out in the end.