'Bridge': Crossing Into The Heart of Childhood

Josh Hutcherson and AnnaSophia Robb as neighbors who discover the magic of first love in
Josh Hutcherson and AnnaSophia Robb as neighbors who discover the magic of first love in "Bridge to Terabithia." (By Kristy Griffin -- Buena Vista Pictures)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 16, 2007

Based on the beloved children's book, "Bridge to Terabithia" takes viewers on a journey not just into the vividly imagined world of its title but into a deeper metaphysical realm. This tender, beautifully realized coming-of-age story fulfills all the requirements for ideal family viewing, offering young people sympathetic, unpatronizing insight into the trials and tribulations of being a kid, while reminding adults that certain life passages -- the flickering recognition of first love, the devastation of first loss -- never lose their emotional imprint.

It's the first day of fifth grade for Jess Aarons (Josh Hutcherson), who lives with his parents and four sisters on a struggling farm and wants nothing more than to prove all the bullies and jocks wrong and win the semester's first foot race. When an eccentric new girl named Leslie Burke (AnnaSophia Robb) shows up in English class, Jess is mildly intrigued; wearing goofy sneakers and socks on her arms, she drags around a backpack that looks like it once belonged to Jack Sparrow.

Jess is a young man besieged by females (four sisters), and when he is forced to suffer such indignities as wearing hand-me-down pink-striped sneakers to school, the only support he gets from his stern father (Robert Patrick) is a barky order to do his chores.

So when Jess is beaten in that first race by the spirited Leslie, the female pincer movement to ruin his life seems pretty much complete. Worse, it turns out that Leslie has moved into the house next door to Jess's farm, and worse still, considering the black Mercedes parked outside, her secondhand-Rose fashion sense belies the kind of offhand wealth that stands like a boho chic rebuke to the Aaronses' own straitened circumstances.

"Bridge to Terabithia" sets up all these dynamics with swiftness and clarity, with even more subtleties on the sidelines, including Jess's talent for drawing and his crush on the school's hipster music teacher, Ms. Edmonds (Zooey Deschanel), who leads the kids in singalongs to Steve Earle songs and, as the adult version of Leslie, suggests that weird chicks can grow up to be pretty cool women.

With the same unforced ease by which these plot points are laid out, Jess and Leslie eventually become friends, jumping off the yellow bus after school to explore the creek near their houses and the woods just over its banks. Leslie -- who is as gifted a storyteller as Jess is an illustrator -- immediately names the forest Terabithia, which quickly becomes their own private kingdom and fortress against the predations of real life.

Building a most excellent treehouse, to which they repair daily to hash out their problems and pretend that squirrels are monsters and pine cones are hand grenades, Jess and Leslie embark on one of those extraordinary friendships where each, for the first time, feels truly understood and accepted.

The director Gabor Csupo, working from a script by Jeff Stockwell and David Paterson (whose mother, Katherine, wrote the novel), gets every detail right in "Bridge to Terabithia," not necessarily every detail of the book but of a world that, while blessedly devoid of such signifiers as iPods, XBoxes and cellphones, is utterly recognizable and authentic. It bears noting that "Bridge to Terabithia" comes from the same production company that made such outstanding family movies as "Holes" and "Because of Winn-Dixie" (which introduced the beguiling young Robb), and with those films shares an appealingly well-worn look, terrific casting and wholesome-but-not-saccharine sensibility. (In addition to technological gizmos, "Bridge to Terabithia" is gratifyingly free of the snarky, compulsive pop culture-referencing aesthetic of so many kids' movies these days.)

Nowhere is this better evidenced than in a sequence where Jess and his family take Leslie to church; on the way home they engage in a brief but penetrating theological discussion that hints at the movie's strong Godward tilt without being proselytizing or sanctimonious.

Robb and Hutcherson are perfectly cast, with Robb playing the recklessly adventurous Leslie as a combination of Pippi Longstocking and Scheherazade, and Hutcherson providing quiet ballast to her flights of fancy. Even when they are battling such computer-animated creatures as squogres and hairy vultures, they are believable to the bitter end.

And, viewers unfamiliar with the book should be warned, the end is bitter, or at least bittersweet, as a profoundly upsetting tragedy occurs in the third act. It turns out that "Bridge to Terabithia" is not just carefree fantasy about escaping to an imaginary world but also an unsettling but finally moving meditation on mortality.

The last five minutes of "Bridge to Terabithia" mark the only time the movie succumbs to oversweet sentiment (not helped by some over-the-top visual effects, which look particularly out of place after the realism that has dominated most of the movie). But viewers will come away from "Bridge to Terabithia" not dwelling on sadness or cheesy effects but on the warmth and respect with which it pays homage to first love, not the puppy love of first kisses and comical stunts but that first glimpse of love as sharing a vision of the world, and building it together.

Bridge to Terabithia (95 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for thematic elements including bullying, some peril and mild profanity.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company