In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that I wept like a baby at the end of “Bridge to Terabithia.” If a movie’s quality were judged solely on the basis of how many tears it elicited, I’d have to give this one an A+.
Thank goodness there are other factors to consider. Based on the beloved 1977 young adult novel by Katherine Paterson, the film is sometimes as gawky and awkward as its adolescent characters, occasionally a little ungraceful in the way it handles itself. Yet like so many films of its genre, it redeems itself by being good-natured and sincere, and by touching the viewer’s heart without manhandling it.
It’s set in an anonymous rural town in an unnamed state, and it depicts children of an uncertain age. (They’re fifth-graders in the book, but they seem more mature than that here.) Jesse (Josh Hutcherson) is the middle of five children in a poor family, and the only boy. His dad (Robert Patrick) works at a hardware store; Mom (Kate Butler) is a homemaker. With his hand-me-down shoes and his family’s financial situation, Jesse is often the target of bullies at school, where he has a secret schoolboy crush on the pretty music teacher (Zooey Deschanel) who visits the class weekly.
Then he becomes friends with a new girl, Leslie (AnnaSophia Robb), whose family has moved in next door. She’s a bit of an outcast, too, being the new kid in school, and her vivid imagination makes her seem like a loony. Soon Leslie and Jesse are traipsing through the woods near their homes, spending their afternoons imagining magical kingdoms and living in their harmless fantasies.
Their relationship is platonic and without any major hurdles. The conflicts are elsewhere: They’re both frequently harassed by bullies, including a troll-like girl named Janice (Lauren Clinton), and Jesse, a budding artist, can’t relate to his no-nonsense father. Widening that gap is the way Dad dotes on Jesse’s pesky little sister, May Belle (Bailee Madison). Why can’t he be that close to Jesse?
Around the halfway mark, the film suddenly shoehorns some Christianity into the story, with the revelation that Jesse’s family are regular churchgoers (first we’ve heard of it), and with Leslie accompanying them one Sunday. This leads to a post-church conversation between Leslie, Jesse, and May Belle about heaven and hell and who’s going where.
How is all this relevant? It isn’t, really. A tragic event later in the film causes two characters to talk about heaven and hell again, but it still feels like it was wedged forcibly into the story. Same with Leslie’s kooky home life, where she’s the only child of two free-spirited novelists who won’t let her watch TV: Why?
And then there’s that tragic event I mentioned. It might be TOO tragic for a film aimed at such young audiences, but the movie (directed by animator Gabor Csupo in his first live-action feature) handles it realistically and with great tenderness. Josh Hutcherson and AnnaSophia Robb give winning performances as Jesse and Leslie, too, which makes the sadness more palatable.
Not that it’s a sad movie, really; it’s a poignant, hopeful movie with a couple sad turns. Kids above the age of about 10 can probably appreciate its mature themes of love and family, and I can attest to the film’s effectiveness on certain adults, too.
B (1 hr., 35 min.; )