Whatever you may have heard or seen, Bridge to Terabithia is not a fantasy movie. The trailers make it look like a third-rate Narnia knockoff or an Eragon bosom buddy, but there are no talking lions, magic kingdoms, or mystical prophecies in the movie. It has nothing to do with anything even remotely like that. Instead, the film has more in common with the 1991 Macauley Culkin movie My Girl and 1986’s Stand By Me. Bridge is an incredibly realistic portrayal of kids struggling with the issues that plague pre-teens and winning.
It’s about Jesse Aaron (Josh Hutcherson), a middle school student from a poor family. On his first day back to school after summer break, he’s forced to wear his older sister’s pink, hand-me-down sneakers because his parents don’t have the money to buy him new ones. At school he’s abused by bullys, bored by his teachers, and treated like an outcast by the other kids. At home his interaction with his dad consists mainly of being yelled at to do his homework or yelled at to do chores. His only escape are his drawings, which he keeps in an oversized sketch book that goes with him everywhere. What blew me away here is that even though we’ve seen almost all of this stuff before, I can’t ever remember seeing a movie get it so right. It just feels incredibly authentic. The guys bullying Jesse aren’t bully clichés, just troubled, jerkwad kids. His dad isn’t cruel, just busy in the way that overworked fathers are. His poverty isn’t extreme and over the top, but he’s poor in the way a lot of kids simply are. It’s in all the details, right down to Jesse’s clothes. Jesse is growing up the way a lot of us did, and if you’ve ever been this kind of kid then the film will almost make it feel as if you can slip right into his skin.
Jesse’s place in this world isn’t going to change, but the way he looks at it does when he meets Leslie (AnnaSophia Robb). She represents a completely new way of thinking when she moves in next door. Like Jesse she’s an outsider, but for completely different reasons. Jesse keeps his head down and minds his own business. His way of getting through the day is doing it without being noticed. Leslie is simply herself, and if she’s rejected by the kids around her it’s simply because she doesn’t care what any of them think.
Eventually the two loners are drawn together, as only two people rejected by everyone else can be. Bridge to Terabithia simply follows them around as Leslie helps Jesse unlock his imagination. She’s a burgeoning writer with a talent for fiction and he’s an artist grappling with his father’s insistence that he get his head out of the clouds. Leslie not only helps him keep his head in the clouds, she shoves him through them and up into the stratosphere. Together they do all the things that friends with imaginations do, founding their own little world of make-believe out in the forest on Jesse’s farm.
The problem with Bridge is the aforementioned make-believe. They’re showing us the world through the eyes of these kids, so when they start imagining that they’re in their own fantastical world of Terabithia, we see what they’re imagining in their heads as if it’s real. That means a little bit of CGI. Not a lot, but enough to be annoying. Fantasy beasts just don’t fit a film that’s otherwise so wonderfully rooted in reality, and those few sequences when they’re forced upon us are pretty boring. There’s never any question of whether or not their appearance is merely a product of the kid’s imagination, so watching Jesse fight a giant squirrel isn’t interesting. There’s no sense of danger or doubt about the outcome. It’s a snooze.
Luckily, the thrust of the film remains intact; that being the friendship between Leslie and Jesse. Sadly, that’s not why audiences are going to show up to see it. Kids are going to drag their parents in to catch the next Harry Potter and what they’re getting is a pretty heavy tear-jerker drama about growing up. Great performances from burgeoning child actors Josh Hutcherson and Keira Knightley look-alike AnnaSophia Robb make Bridge to Terabithia a touching and moving film, but the faux fantasy stuff they’ve shoehorned in around them would have been better left on the cutting room floor.