Published February 22, 2007
The new film from Walt Disney pictures, “Bridge to Terabithia,” is a touching story that illustrates the power of imagination and the importance of friendship. Based on the Newberry Award-winning novel by Katherine Paterson, and directed by Gabor Csupo, the film does a wonderful job of weaving fantastical details into a very realistic portrayal of the lives of two young friends.
“Bridge to Terabithia” opens as Jess Aarons prepares to begin a new school year. He has been practicing all summer in order to win a race on the first day of school, but he is unexpectedly beaten by the new girl in school—Leslie Burke. Neither Jess nor Leslie fit the mold at their school, and both are targets for the bullies in their class. They soon form a strong but unlikely friendship, bonding over their troubles at school and feelings of isolation at home.
Although both characters come from loving families, they often feel alone. Jess’s parents are constantly struggling with money, and the demands of work and caring for a large family often cause them to overlook his needs. Leslie’s parents are more well-to-do, but they seem to ignore her much of the time as they focus on their work. The two children have very different personalities, but they complement each other well—the more outgoing Leslie gives Jess confidence, and the more practical Jess keeps Leslie from going too far.
Most importantly, both children have incredibly vivid imaginations. Leslie is a talented writer, able to weave imaginative stories, while Jess is gifted at drawing. Together they create a magical land for themselves in the woods, Terabithia. There they reign supreme, battling the machinations of a dark lord, befriending mystical woodland creatures, and creating an enchanted world that only they can share. Their friendship and blossoming imaginations make both of the children stronger, more independent, and better able to meet the difficulties of their day-to-day lives.
The key to the success of the film lies in the young actors chosen to play the key roles. Both Josh Hutcherson as Jess and AnnaSophia Robb as Leslie turn in performances that are realistic and touching. In fact, all of the children in the film look and act like regular kids found at any local school, and this makes the action feel real and all the more heartbreaking when a tragedy strikes.
The production team made an interesting choice in how they incorporated the special effects into the film. Building on the realism of the overall story, the effects appear slowly, one by one, as the children’s imagination grows and expands. The first time Jess hears Leslie read one of her stories, bubbles begin to appear from her mouth as she describes scuba diving. This detail is enchanting, and it establishes the magical effects that begin to appear as the world of Terabithia takes shape.
The film represents religion briefly, as Leslie accompanies Jess and his family to church one Sunday morning. The children discuss God with Jess’s younger sister May Belle (the charming Bailee Madison) as they return home. The two siblings, who have more grounding in organized religion, seem more intimidated by the story of Christ, while Leslie, whose family is not religious, is more open to the spiritual possibilities. Later in the movie, however, when Jess questions his father about a religious quandary, he seems to ultimately find comfort in God.
Most importantly, “Bridge to Terabithia” takes children seriously. The story presents some of the very real problems and dilemmas that children face, and it does not take them lightly. The protagonists are complex characters, and they grow throughout the course of the story. Bad things can happen unexpectedly, the adults in their lives do not always understand them, and the children must navigate a complicated world between school politics and family life. The lesson to be learned in the film is that all of this is made much easier if one uses one’s imagination, learns from other people, and, as Leslie instructs Jess, keeps “your mind wide open.”