Promoted as a fantasy-adventure follow up to Disney/Walden Media’s Narnia (2004), Terabithia is something altogether more wonderful. Jess (Josh Hutcherson) is bullied at school, his hard working father (Robert Patrick) burdens him with chores, his sisters ignore him, though the youngest, May Belle (Bailee Madison) follows him around like a puppy. A promising athlete, Jess is humiliated when new girl Leslie (AnnaSophia Robb) outraces him, but these lonely children form a life-changing friendship. Both are gifted: Jess can draw and Leslie tells spellbinding stories. They adventure together in Terabithia, an imaginary kingdom of azure skies, enchanted forests and magical creatures. Bright, soulful, free-spirited Leslie enables Jess to outsmart the bullies, reconnect with his dad and even ponder the nature of existence. But after Jess spends a day with his beloved teacher Ms. Edmunds (Zooey Deschanel), subsequent events leave him forever changed.
Though unheralded in Britain, Katherine Patterson’s award-winning novel is much loved in America. Written to console her son David (who wrote this screenplay) through a personal tragedy. There’s a pleasing circularity about its ongoing ability to affect young readers that mirrors Jess’ decision to build the bridge to Terabithia for May Belle, bringing beauty and joy to future generations. Rugrats-creator Gabor Csupo’s live action debut taps into children’s primal need for make believe, but reaches beyond simple escapism and boldly tackles faith, relationships, and the often harsh realities of everyday life. Minor flaws include some over-emphatic pop tunes and an underused Deschanel, though the gifted actress makes the most of her screen time as Jess’ secret crush. Csupo’s direction lacks the finesse of Spielberg or Miyazaki, but with Michael Chapman’s cinematography he weaves an arresting fairytale land, enriched by Aaron Zigman’s evocative score, including a knockout battle between evil squirrels and heroic bugs (Dima Marlinchea’s creature designs are delightfully idiosyncratic).
Csupo really scores in the heart-wrenching drama, aided by three, fantastic performances. Hutcherson avoids the cliché of sullen adolescence, ably conveying Jess’ journey through a myriad of moods. Madison is so cute her parents must be an elf and a bunny, but pitch perfect as a lovably annoying kid sister. But Terabithia’s heart is the effervescent Robb as Leslie. Quirky with her hand painted clothes, compelling as she questions God, funny when she organises a kindergarten protest (“Free the pee!”), and tackling all obstacles with a sunny disposition. The filmmakers lucked out: Hutcherson and Robb share a natural chemistry that never feels forced. Their characters share a love many adolescents will yearn for while parents smile in wistful remembrance. Leslie embodies Patterson’s concept of fantasy as a vital aspect of the human spirit, and Robb’s stellar performance makes the tragedy almost unbearable. A magical story of first love, loss and the importance of imagination in all our lives, Bridge to Terabithia is an unexpected gem.