Children’s films tend to proselytize and moralize more often than any other genre. Bridge to Terabithia finds a way out of these pitfalls, with worlds — both imagined and real– unfolding more organically and honestly than that in any Narnia or Middle Earth.
Jesse (Josh Hutcherson) first appears with his face framed by a window. Living on a farm with his parents and five sisters, he is, like so many movie children, defined by his surroundings and seeking escape. So poor that he wears a sneaker bound with duct tape, he is, at 12 years old, determined and self-disciplined. As the film begins, he sets off on a morning jog, his intensity clear. He’s running both from and towards his imminent puberty, his cranky parents, his own creativity that overflows from his sketchbooks.
As Jesse is set up as a good kid in tough spot, his poverty and introversion don’t bode well for his popularity at school. In particular he’s tormented daily by jerk Scott Hoager (Cameron Wakefield), who emits a beeping “loser alert” whenever Jesse’s near. No sooner is his status made clear than Leslie Burke (AnnaSophia Robb), the plucky new girl, is escorted into the classroom somewhat ceremoniously. Her hair in spiky mini-braids, her clothes mismatched and funky, she’s beautiful and boho, and Jesse’s immediately attracted and suspicious at once.
Leslie radiates confidence, beating Jesse and all the other boys in a footrace, and embraces her own active imagination, writing a stellar first-week essay on the joys of scuba-diving (which she’s never actually done). In part fueled by her parents, both successful fiction writers, Leslie’s almost too perfect. At first she looks like that typical wacky girl meant to bring the stifled boy around, but she’s not. Instead, she shows enough restraint to keep stay grounded in Jesse’s reality and enough gumption to be independent of him. She invites him to share in her world while acknowledging and working through his.
Soon Jesse and Leslie are scampering through the woods and past their usual borders (“This isn’t our land,” Jesse warns). Here Leslie imagines for them a pretend world called Terabithia, where the two can flex power over school bullies and authority figures, refigured as various creatures. Gradually, Terabithia becomes less of a utopia, and more of an interactive virtual classroom, custom-designed for working out solutions to their pressing adolescent issues. This involves giant trolls, nasty oversized squirrels, and a Dark Master stalking in the shadows. While the CGI effects are pretty ragtag, it’s not important to the narrative that the visuals be wholly convincing. The seams remind us that Terabithia exists in Jesse and Leslie’s heads.
Even with all this make-believe going on, Jesse still faces plenty of business back home, particularly the issue of girls. Even as he’s smitten with Leslie, he’s also quite taken by his music teacher, Ms. Edmonds (Zooey Deschanel), another big-eyed beauty who strums her guitar during sing-alongs (her music helps to highlight the film’s themes, with selections like “Ooh Child” and “Why Can’t We Be Friends?”) and takes an interest in Jesse’s artistic talent. Beyond these two romantic possibilities, Jesse also must negotiate relationships with his four sisters, the most complicated of which is with six-year-old May Belle (Bailee Madison), with whom he also shares a room. She too recognizes Jesse’s talents, but her affiliation with his emotionally distant family — especially the fact that their father (Robert Patrick) overtly favors her — doesn’t allow him to acknowledge that he might have a female ally and friend, comparable to Leslie and Ms. Edmunds, living under his own roof.
The banter among Leslie, Jesse, May Belle, and a bully named Brenda (Devon Wood) — occasions fairly complex discussions about faith and class differences. And though little May Belle insists that if you don’t believe in the Bible, “God will damn you to hell,” the film takes no such stance on the issue. Instead, when tragedy strikes, we’re left to ponder inevitable changes in friendship and family. Where other “kids’ films” might instruct or condescend, Bridge to Terabithia treats children like what they will eventually become: grown-ups.