The Bridge to Terabithia is the latest big screen adaptation of a beloved children’s book from the folks at Walden Media. Their other successes have included the first Chronicles of Narnia movie, as well as Holes, Because of Winn-Dixie, and the far less successful Hoot. Following in Narnia’s footsteps, Terabithia tells the story of a couple of tween kids who discover a fantastic world–this time not in a wardrobe but in the nearby woods. Jess, a somewhat lonely kid lost in a family full of girls is surprised when a new girl in class beats him in a school foot race. Leslie is also a bit lonely because her parents keep moving around and isolate themselves when they work (they’re writers). Since Jess and Leslie are neighbours and both the targets of schoolyard mistreatment, they bond and create imaginary adventures for themselves in the nearby woods. Finding a rope swing hanging over a creek, they decide that it takes them to the magical world of Terabithia. It sounds like a great place to see, but unfortunately, we spend most of the movie on this side of the bridge. Brief visits from Terabithian creatures do not do enough to elevate a moving yet cliche kids movie into anything as epic or as classic as Narnia.
The highlight of the story is the friendship between Jess and Leslie. They are just young enough to be cute and wide-eyed, but old enough to understand a bit of the harsh grown up reality that surrounds them. Typically in these circumstances (Jess’s family is also faced with financial troubles) the imaginary world acts as a means to escape. This is kind of true about Terabithia: its “evil” creatures get associated with some of the bullies and “bad guys” of the schoolyard. Unfortunately, we spend far more screen time with the actual bullies than the imagined ones, and the magical world doesn’t do its job of helping the kids cope with their real circumstances. Again, it’s Jess and Leslie’s friendship that helps more.
In the end, reality wins out and the movie takes a darker tone. After watching this movie, I couldn’t help but think again of Pan’s Labyrinth. That movie had a much much darker tone, also alongside a fantasy world, but in the end it was the adult world that was the real one. The adult problems needed to be resolved and fantasy ultimately gave way. Terabithia let the fantasy solve the kid’s problems and (while it’s obviously much more appropriate for kids) it was far less satisfying for an adult to watch. [Pardon me for being cryptic, but I don’t want to give away the story–in case anyone watches the film after reading this.]
I never read the original book, so I don’t know if anything’s been changed, or if there was ever a sequel, but now I know why it was never as much of a classic fantasy as the Narnia series. I continue to applaud Walden for their efforts to make wonderful cinematic kids movies. Terabithia was (if nothing else), nicely done with big-budget visual effects and pretty good performances from the actors. The values and lessons taught by the film are solid and well-intentioned. Unfortunately, for us grown-ups, The Bridge to Terabithia is definitely missing that extra touch of something. (3.5 out of 5)