Bridge to Terabithia

Starring Josh Hutcherson, Annasophia Robb and Zooey Deschanel. Directed by Gabor Csupo.
Running Time: 95 minutes
Rated: Rated PG (mild themes).
It is a pleasure to be able to recommend this film to audiences of all ages except, perhaps, the smallest of children. One can say that it is a lovely film. It is one of the best American films for young audiences.

The Bridge to Terabithia is based on the 1976 award-winning novel by Katherine Paterson, a book that apparently is well read in America. It has been adapted by the author's son, David. It touches on many themes that children experience and can identify with: busy families, education, school bullying, making friends, using the imagination, being creative, death and grief, peace-making and hope.

The two child actors give very mature and nuanced performances. Josh Hutcherson (Zathura, Little Manhattan) shows great talent as Jess, the central character of the story, an 11 year old boy who has two older sisters and two younger ones. He tends to be overlooked in the family or taken for granted, except to do the chores. He is closest to his little sister May Belle (Bailee Madison) who is just starting school and relies on him. Hutcherson is able to portray believably the different moods of a boy who goes through quite some upheavals in his life.

The other principal character is Leslie, a new girl at the school and Jess's neighbour, an only child whose writer-parents love her but are busy about their creative work. AnnSophia Robb (who was sweet in Because of Winn-Dixie and nasty in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) is a breath of fresh air as Leslie who is outgoing, friendly and imaginative. Robert Patrick, best known as the evil Cyborg in Terminator II, has to be severe most of the time as Jess's father.

The filming took place in New Zealand towns and countryside standing in for the U.S.

Where is Terabithia? In a way, it is just across the river from home, a magical place in the woods. On the other hand, it exists mainly in the imaginations of Jess and Leslie. It is their kingdom, where they can go every day after school and make believe that there are huge tree-like trolls, small warriors and nasty flying mini-monsters. Jess tends to be very matter-of-fact, except in his constant drawings. Leslie is spontaneously intuitive and has no trouble in seeing Terabithia.

One of the best features of the screenplay is that the special effects (from the WETA Company in Wellington, who were responsible for the effects in The Lord of the Rings) do not dominate the story. The story is firmly anchored in the reality of home life, family, school and classes, life in the playground and travelling to and from by the school bus. This makes the excursions into the realm of fantasy more convincing and persuades us that children do need to foster their imaginations.

There is a plot development that will take those who have not read the novel (as I had not) completely by surprise. We adults were upset and tearful with what happens so, I would suspect, would be the children's audience. But, it is handled wisely and beautifully, realistically in the best sense.

This leads to a greater bond between Jess and his father and a more generous love from Jess for May Belle - building, just for her, a real as well as an imaginary bridge to Terabithia.

The director, Gabor Csupo, emigrated from communist Hungary in 1975 to Sweden, and worked in an animation studio. Later, in the United States, his company was responsible for the first three seasons of The Simpsons and then made the Rugrats series. The Bridge to Terabithia is a fine achievement.

Buena Vista international Out 14th June.

Fr Peter Malone MSC directs the film desk of SIGNIS: the World Association of Catholic Communicators, and is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.