February 22, 2007

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Bridge to Terabithia (PG)
Two outcast kids learn to have confidence in themselves in the real world by creating a great adventure in a fantasy world in Bridge to Terabithia, a lovely movie based on a beloved children’s book.

That is, I’m told Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson is much beloved — somehow that book never found its way in front of my nerd-girl glasses back during my elementary school days. Seeing the movie, however, has convinced me that should I ever have any little nerds of my own, I’ll be sure to add this to their reading lists.

Jesse (Josh Hutcherson) is a somewhat misfit kid from a large, poor family. His dad (Robert Patrick) doesn’t make quite enough between the hardware store and a small greenhouse to afford the family many luxuries so when Jesse, a fast runner who’s been practicing all summer to beat the other boys in a race, needs new shoes, he’s stuck taking hand-me-downs. The somewhat worn shoes wouldn’t be so bad except that they once belonged to an older sister and are pink (Jesse is the sole boy in the family and has four sisters, two older and two younger). The pink shoes don’t help Jesse’s already difficult social life — he seems to be the object of bullying from kids in his grade and from the older kids. He rides the bus alone, mopes in class and only shows real joy while running or drawing.

Into his life like a yellow daisy pops Leslie (AnnaSophia Robb). She’s the only child of artistic-minded writer parents but she’s just as much of an outcast and just as much a fan of running. She and Jesse have an awkward meeting — Leslie beats him in a foot race — but the two soon figure out they live near each other and become friends. Leslie has a lively imagination and teases creativity out of Jesse, who had heretofore kept his fantasy on the page. He blossoms so much that he begins to take part in class, garnering the attention of the music teacher (Zooey Deschanel), who sees talent in his drawings. Together, Leslie and Jesse are able to overcome their misfit status, defeating some bullies and defanging others. Then, after school, they head toward a rope swing over a creek that takes them to a wooded area they’ve labeled Terabithia, a land of enchanted trees, fighting hedgehoggy things and winged warriors. The pair even adopt a puppy to help them fight the evil powers and, despite the workaday realities of Jesse’s fantasy-eschewing father, the kids find themselves enjoying a fall of rare joy.

So much joy that after one particularly successful day of fantasy in Terabithia, the pair part with Jesse turning back to take lingering, sun-dappled look at his dear friend Leslie. Oh, poor Leslie, lingering portrait-shots of sunny young characters never lead anyplace good.

Bridge to Terabithia hits all the big late-elementary-school-novel themes: believing in yourself, keeping an open mind about people, standing up to bullies, not judging your family too harshly, art is good — all the biggies. The movie is subtle enough with these messages that you don’t feel afterschool-specialed. Such movies hinge on the likeability and reality of the children characters and Robb and Hutcherson do a brilliant job of acting like real children. Too often movie children act like the adults who wrote their characters and not with the strange logic, clumsy maturity and unselfconscious sense of fantasy of real children. Here, we believe the fantastic tales of Terabithia because the kids don’t seem too Nick-sarcastic for the story they’re living.

Bridge to Terabithia has moments of complex emotion that might bore, confuse or scare kids under the age of 9 but it seem perfectly tailored to the sensibilities of older children. The movie is slower, more careful in its storytelling than the action-heavy Alex Rider- or Zoom-style movie, which screams at kids with noise and color while going light on actual story. And as much as I love a good action movie, this kind of well-crafted storytelling is just as necessary to the young movie-watcher. B+

Rated PG for thematic elements including bullying, some peril and mild language. Directed by Gabor Csupo and written by Jeff Stockwell and David Paterson from the novel by Katherine Paterson, Bridge to Terabithia is an hour and 35 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Walt Disney Pictures.