Despite an ad campaign suggesting wall-to-wall special effects, "Bridge to Terabithia" is grounded in reality far more than in fantasy. Adapting Katherine Paterson’s award-winning novel, the screenwriters David Paterson (Ms. Paterson’s son) and Jeff Stockwell have produced a thoughtful and extremely affecting story of a transformative friendship between two unusually gifted children. The result is a movie whose emotional depth could appeal more to adults than to their offspring.
Jess Aarons (Josh Hutcherson) is a sixth grader with four sisters, financially strained parents (Robert Patrick and Kate Butler) and a talent for drawing. An introverted kid who is regularly picked on by the school jerks, Jess forms a bond with a new student named Leslie (AnnaSophia Robb), a free spirit whose parents, both writers, are fondly neglectful. An attraction between outsiders, their friendship feeds on her words and his pictures; together they create an imaginary kingdom in the woods behind their homes, a world they can control and where their minds can roam free.
Beautifully capturing a time when a bully in school can loom as large as a troll in a nightmare and the encouragement of a teacher can alter the course of a life, “Bridge to Terabithia” keeps the fantasy in the background to find magic in the everyday. Gabor Csupo, one of the creators of “Rugrats,” directs this, his first feature, like someone intimate with the pain of being different, allowing each personality more than a single characteristic and reveling in tiny, perfect details: the mending tape hugging a worn pair of sneakers, the way a child detects the tension in a parent’s hushed conversation, the inchoate isolation of a lone boy in a house filled with the sounds of women.
With strong performances from all the leads, including Zooey Deschanel as a spirited music teacher and little Bailey Madison as Jesse’s youngest sister, May Belle, “Bridge to Terabithia” is able to handle adult topics with nuance and sensitivity. As the emotional landscape darkens, those who haven’t read the book may be surprised at the sorrow the filmmakers evoke without ever resorting to shock or sentimentality. In other words, your children may sniffle, but they won’t be traumatized.
Consistently smart and delicate as a spider web, “Bridge to Terabithia” is the kind of children’s movie rarely seen nowadays. And at a time when many public schools are being forced to cut music and art from the curriculum, the story’s insistence on the healing power of a nurtured imagination is both welcome and essential.