4 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Gabor Csupo

Cast: Josh Hutcherson, AnnaSophia Robb, Zooey Deschanel, Robert Patrick, Bailee Madison, Katrina Cerio, Lauren Clinton, Latham Gaines, Judy McIntosh, Devon Wood, Emma Fenton, Cameron Wakefield, Elliot Lawless

MPAA Rating: PG (for thematic elements including bullying, some peril and mild language)

Running Time: 1:35

Release Date: 2/16/07

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Review by Mark Dujsik

What a wonderful, sorrowful film. Full of the imagination of childhood and the heartaches life brings, Bridge to Terabithia instantly obtains status as one of the seminal family films. Based on the 1977 book by Katherine Paterson (which was astonishingly number nine on the American Library Association's list of the most frequently challenged books for the last decade of the twentieth century), the film is an ode to the importance of honing innate talents, the universal misery of trying to fit in, and how the first can make the second a moot point. This is a film children of this generation will pass on to their own and that has the ability to spark conversations about life's greatest mysteries between parent and child. Director Gabor Csupo's feature film debut is a simple story that turns into a complex one, told with complete honesty and an emotional resonance that has the power to make even the most jaded weep. Paterson's inspiration for the book was her son's friendship with a young girl, and now that son David is one of the screenwriters for the film. He, with co-writer Jeff Stockwell, has now brought his firsthand perspective to his mother's work and ensured that the lessons of it will continue to inspire for a long time to come.

Jesse Aarons (Josh Hutcherson) is about to start the fifth grade. He has been practicing running every morning for the summer with the hopes of being the fastest boy in school. He lives on a farm with his father (Robert Patrick), mother (Kate Butler), two older sisters, and two younger sisters, including young May Belle (Bailee Madison), who is just starting school with her admired older brother. There are hard times at the farm, and Jesse is forced to wear his older sister's hand-me-down, pink-striped sneakers after his mother determines his old ones are worthy of the trash. Even though the shoes are enough to earn the mocking of his bullying classmates, they are temporarily shut up when a new girl named Leslie (AnnaSophia Robb) arrives in class. She's as much an outsider as Jesse, but she doesn't care anywhere near as much. The entire school is shocked when she beats all of the boys in their footrace, but it doesn't stop eighth-grade terror Janice (Lauren Clinton) from her ways. Arriving at home with his sister, Jesse discovers that Leslie is his new neighbor. Jesse loves to draw, and Leslie is an imaginative writer. Something in their creative spirits clicks, and soon they are wandering the woods, creating a fantasy world called Terabithia to escape the real world's problems.

The screenplay is built around the formation and growth of Jesse and Leslie's friendship, two artistic souls in a world that doesn't seem to understand them. Even Jesse's father doesn't get it; he frequently scolds his son for having his head in the clouds. The Aarons' family dynamic is established quickly but solidly, informing Jesse's distance from others at school and a conflict between the familial need for responsibility and his own desire to create. Leslie is his outlet and co-conspirator in letting his mind run as free as it needs to. Upon her first reveal of Terabithia to Jesse, Leslie urges her friend, "Close your eyes, but keep your mind wide open."  Terabithia is not just an escape but also a home for their imaginations. If the film sounds like a fantasy-come-to-life, it is not. There is never any implication that Terabithia exists anywhere but in their seemingly collective imagination. There are certainly fantastical turns here: dragonflies are the noble warriors of the land, squirrels become part squirrel, part ogres ("squogres") that seem to have loser detectors like one of Jesse's bullies, pine cones are hand grenades, and Janice is an actual troll and not just one who forces kids to pay a dollar to use the bathroom ("Free the pee!").

There's also a Dark Master roaming the woods, but what is it? Is it a collection of the mean-spiritedness of those who don't understand Jesse and Leslie? Is it Jesse's distant father? Or is it something even more foreboding, more inevitable and inescapable? The special effects are superbly done but are not by any means the focus of the story; they exist only to strengthen the portrayal of the bond between the two children. Josh Hutcherson and AnnaSophia Robb are natural in their roles and embody an unbreakable friendship. There is a pleasantly surprising maturity in some of their conversations. At one point, Leslie reveals her parents are writers, and Jesse comments that it explains her. She retorts that he must know a lot about hardware since his father works for a hardware store. When Jesse finally meets her parents, he's amazed to see them paint an entire room gold on a whim to catch the sunset. It's something his family would never do, even if they had the means. There's also a discussion about religion in the back of Jesse's father's pickup after Leslie joins the family for a service. She does not attend church but sees beauty in it. Meanwhile, Jesse goes to an art museum for the first time under the watch of the music teacher Ms. Edmonds (Zooey Deschanel) on whom he has a crush (Who wouldn't?).

The film's primary lesson in its early acts is discovery—finding out what you're good at and sticking to it. But there's also a painful lesson in empathy as well—discovering that other people have troubles too. After a revenge plot on Janice goes sour when she has her heart broken by an uncaring boy, Leslie learns things about the bully's home life that transform the way they see her in the real world and in Terabithia. A teacher everyone hates also reveals pain to Jesse, but before the film goes there, it turns in an unexpected, heartbreaking way. The friendship is torn asunder; the weight of it drops. The results are devastating. It's in the film's final act that it achieves a wise sense of the world. Everyday things—their tree house and the items within it—suddenly have the burden of memory, and people—a father who seemed to have no time makes time in a wrenching moment—must make sense of it all. Csupo and the screenwriters do not shy away from the effects of grief—the way it engulfs everything. It's a lesson we all learn, and the film is brave in portraying it honestly.

This is a sad film—the final half hour is genuinely heartrending—but it is educated by the lessons of its earlier section. I still wonder why Bridge to Terabithia has been challenged by parents as unsuitable for children. Yes, it deals with tough issues (and, of course, there are the typically ridiculous claims of supporting the occult—you know, because it contains fantasy), but if there's one overriding lesson to be taken from the story, it's about family. It's about the importance of honoring family—the one we're born into and the one we choose in our association with others. How simple, yet how profound. And how wonderful.

Copyright © 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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