The Bridge to Terabithia
directed by Gabor Csupo
(Walt Disney, 2007)

It's been 24 hours since I finished watching The Bridge to Terabithia, which I watched on a whim with my wife and daughter with little foreknowledge of the plot. I'd never read the Newbery Award-winning book by Katherine Paterson, and I'd seen only one trailer for the film, which left me with the impression it would be a Narnia knock-off.

It's not.

I'm not dissing The Chronicles of Narnia, which in its way was a remarkable film. But Terabithia didn't deserve the CGI-laden marketing campaign it received; far from a fantasy blockbuster, this is a deep and thoughtful movie that places substance over sparkle -- a rare treat in the sprawling field of youth-oriented theater. It ranks up there with one of my favorites, The Secret of Roan Inish, which accomplished more with no special effects than most family-friendly movies could with a billion-dollar budget.

But I just can't shake Terabithia from my head, a fact owed mostly to the performance of AnnaSophia Robb. As Leslie, a spirited young girl with a fiery imagination and endless good cheer, AnnaSophia captured my heart. She's the kind of person you want to know when you're a child and, as my wife remarked midway through the film, she's the sort of young woman you'd be happy to see your daughter grow up to be.

An outsider despite her youthful good looks and family wealth, she finds her perfect match in Jesse (Joss Hutcherson), another outsider who has withdrawn into his art to escape a chilly home life and his own problems at school. Together, they discover a secret getaway that might seem like a fairly ordinary patch of woods to most people; to them, it's a magical world replete with fantastic creatures, hidden dangers and amazing triumphs.

It's here the special effects intrude more than accentuate the film; the story would have benefited from a vaguer sense of Jesse and Leslie's own wonder. We don't need to see CGI creatures to believe that these two children do.

The strength here, besides outstanding performances from the two lead actors, is the impact of a story that knows no amount of fantasy can prevent real-life tragedies from occurring. And the tragedy here -- it's hard to write about it without giving it away -- slams into unsuspecting viewers like a sudden kick to the gut. My wife, who'd read the book, knew what was coming. I had not, and did not.

Parents of younger viewers should be prepared to have a long and serious talk with their children after this movie, but that's not a recommendation to avoid it. Far from it, Terabithia deserves to be seen, discussed and seen again. (Although use some discretion; very young children should wait before seeing this.) My thanks to director Gabor Csupo, as well as writer Paterson, for giving kids something honest and real rather than another serving of high-energy fluff.

Besides Robb and Hutcherson, the movie benefits from strong performances from Zooey Deschanel as a too-cool-for-words music teacher and Robert Patrick as Jesse's too-gruff father, as well as Bailee Madison as Jesse's adorable young sister, May Belle.

review by
Tom Knapp

7 July 2007

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