How is it that "Bridge to Terabithia" can be made at the same studio whose last live-action family release was 2006's deplorable "The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause
?" Not one to be consistent, Walt Disney Pictures has proven itself to be capable of making complete trash that one wouldn't wish on the most annoying of children, only to turn things around and deliver a home run. Sure, their successes probably have just as much to do with their collaborations with the more quality-conscious Pixar (2006's "Cars
") and Walden Media (2005's "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
"), but it should still be a proud day for the company when it actually sees to the release of something like "Bridge to Terabithia." Frankly, this is the strongest family film since 2005's "Little Manhattan
"coincidentally, both also star the immensely talented Josh Hutcherson in the lead roleand one that is destined to make a deep and resonant impression on every viewer, no matter their age.
It warrants being mentioned up front that the advertising and marketing campaign has been supremely misleading, which could act as either a hindrance or a help to its box-office potential. Unless you have read the Newbery Award-winning novel by Katherine Paterson, there is no way to anticipate just what the film has to offer. The trailers and television commercials suggest a wall-to-wall special effects extravaganza aiming to knock off "The Chronicles of Narnia
." In actuality, these scenes take up no more than ten minutes of screen time and wholly occur within the vast minds of its characters. Instead, "Bridge to Terabithia" is a reality-based coming-of-age story, so beautifully told and passionately crafted by director Gabor Csupo (in an auspicious debut) and screenwriters Jeff Stockwell (2002's "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys
") and David Paterson (Katherine's son) that, yes, I would rank it alongside 1986's "Stand by Me" and 1991's "My Girl" as one of the best of its genre.
Jesse "Jess" Aarons (Josh Hutcherson) is a sixth-grader with what he believes to be a pretty rotten existence. Stuck with financially-struggling parents (Robert Patrick and Katrina Cerio) who don't seem to understand him, four sisters who might as well be living on another planet, and classmates that are constantly teasing him, Jess's only pleasurable respites are his running competitions and a natural gift for drawing. When tomboyish new girl in school Leslie Burke (AnnaSophia Robb) narrowly beats Jess at a race, he is initially resentful at her for stealing whatever thunder he might have had. With her living right down the street from him, however, Jess and Leslie eventually become the best of pals. Spending their time together after school in the forest near their homes and opening their minds to an imaginary kingdom they create together called Terabithia, it is ultimately Jess's meaningful bond with Leslie that works him out of his introverted shell and inspires him to consider pursuing his love for drawing and art.
"Bridge to Terabithia" is difficult to discuss in exact details because so much of it hinges on one's gradual discovery of where the story is going and how it eventually adds up. Giving away too much, especially the entire third act, would be criminal, and perhaps therein lies part of the marketing problem for this movie. Screenwriters Jeff Stockwell and David Paterson have done a brilliant job in faithfully adapting Katherine Paterson's novel, all the while expanding and multi-dimensionalizing its characters and the film's eloquent themes beyond the words on the page. In essence, "Bridge to Terabithia" is a motion picture about the kind of friendship that only happens once in a blue moon, filled with a love, respect and unfailing faithfulness that is the pair's own to cherish and nobody else's. More than that, the film is about the sometimes hard but necessary process of lifethe trials, the tribulations, the joys, and the heartbreaksthat inherently makes us human.
Director Gabor Csupo, complimented by a flawless music score by Aaron Zigman (2006's "Flicka
") that gives the film a rich, yet subtle, underlying tone, shows a gentle and relatable understanding to the touchy material. In the wrong hands, "Bridge to Terabithia" could have inspired bad laughs in the sequences where Jess and Leslie play make-believe, visualizing a world populated by giants, oversized squirrels, threatening birds, and various other creatures, but it, too, is blessed with a low-key, believable touch. Even worse, the movie could have very easily wandered into saccharine, dumbed-down, emotionally manipulative territory under the helm of a filmmaker who didn't know what he was doing. Blessedly, the film is tough, unsentimental, and all the more poignant and unforgettable because a trust has been wisely placed on the strengths of the actors and the writing to convey the tale's adeptness. Rejoice, too, if for nothing else than the fact that there isn't a fart or poop joke in sight; "Bridge to Terabithia" is way too smart for that.
At 14 (he was 13 during filming), Josh Hutcherson has built an impressive résumé for himself and has never, to my knowledge, struck a wrong note in any of his performances. If there is a male equivalent to Dakota Fanning, he is undoubtedly it. As Jesse Aarons, Hutcherson builds an authentic protagonist whose sympathetic nature comes from the mistakes he makes and the imperfections that make him who he is. Forced to confront some crucial life lessons along the way, Jess comes out the other side a little wiser, a little more grown-up, but, most important, doesn't lose his ability to dream. Hutcherson aces the part with an unfaltering naturalism and depth that few male actors his age could achieve.
As the free-spirited Leslie, AnnaSophia Robb (2005's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
") is Hutcherson's match, and makes an ingrained impression with less screen time. The daughter of writer parents who don't often have time for her, Leslie accepts her lot in life, values her relationship with Jess, and holds a sunny outlook even when times are tough. Having seen how well they work together and how sweet their chemistry is, Hutcherson and Robb don't just nicely play Jess and Leslie, but seem to become them.
In sharp supporting turns, Robert Patrick (2006's "We Are Marshall
") gets his meatiest role in ages as Jess' sometimes gruff but nevertheless loving father, and Zooey Deschanel (2006's "Failure to Launch
") softens some of her acerbic edges as inspirational music teacher Miss Edmunds, who believes in Jess's artistic capabilities and encourages him not give up on his drawing. There is a wonderful set-piece where Miss Edmunds invites Jess into the city to an art museum and opens his eyes to the limitless possibilities of a culture he has never experienced before. In this, and in the scenes where Miss Edmunds leads the class in sing-alongs to classic tunes from throughout the decades, Deschanel captures with warmth and honesty a young woman just starting out in her career and hanging on to the hope that she will be able to make some kind of difference in her students' lives. As Jess's adoring, mostly ignored little sister Maybelle, newcomer Bailee Madison is an adorable find who manages the feat of being cute without becoming annoying. Other characters, such as nasty eighth grade bully Janice Avery (Lauren Clinton), avert cliché, cementing the tried-and-true adage that things aren't always as they appear.
Screenwriter David Paterson is not only the son of the source material's author, but shares another personal attachment to the storywhile he was still a child, mother Katherine wrote the book as a way to help him cope with something that he was experiencing. In adapting the work for the big screen, and doing it with such a pure heart and hand, David has been able to contribute back to his mom a staggering cinematic effort that will continue her celebrated literary legacy. Enchanting, transcendent and profoundly moving, "Bridge to Terabithia" is a new family classic. Mark my words: it is that rarified breed of masterpiece with a shelf life destined to span many generations to come as it entertains and educates the young, the old, and everyone in between.