When you've waited a long time for a film to be made of a book you really love, you hope with all your heart that the end result will be worth it. Bridge to Terabithia, the film adaptation of Katherine Paterson's beloved book of the same name, opens this weekend, and I'm delighted to report that this is a heartfelt, respectful, and remarkably well-done film. The film is directed by Gabor Csupo, marking the Rugrats' director's big-screen debut directing live actors. Csupo retains the sense of wonder he's brought to Rugrats for so long, but with Bridge to Terabithia, he shows he's a solid director who's able to handle more sensitive material without losing the magic. He does such a good job, I'm almost willing to forgive him for creating Rugrats obnoxious Angelica.
Bridge to Terabithia, the novel, was storytelling at it's best: a simple, pure plot, and compelling characters with believable arcs and obstacles to overcome, and it translates very well to the screen. The story revolves around the unlikely friendship that forms between fifth-grader Jesse Aarons (Josh Hutcherson) and new-girl-in-town Leslie Burke (AnnaSophia Robb). Jesse and Leslie live in a small, rural town, and attend a dreary small-town school where, apparently, the adults have abandoned all hope at the door, surrendering the playground to the eighth-grade bullies.
Head bully Janice Avery (Lauren Clinton) is the biggest and meanest of them all, and Leslie gets on her bad side from day one by asking Janice and her gang if they've ever heard the story of the ugly trolls who guarded the bridge, stealing tolls from innocent travelers -- just as Janice and her gang of Amazonian eight-graders guard the playground bathroom, demanding a buck from the younger kids for the privilege of peeing indoors.
In Jesse and Leslie's school, the lines between the boys and the girls are firmly drawn: at recess, the girls play dolls or jump rope on the lower playground, and the boys run foot races on the upper. All summer long, Jesse has practiced running in the hopes of finally beating his arch-nemesis, Gary Fulcher, for the coveted title of "fastest boy in the fifth grade." When race time finally happens, Jesse does beat Gary -- but not Leslie, who easily outruns him and every other boy on the field.
At first, Jesse won't have anything to do with Leslie, but after she compliments his drawings, he slowly starts to come out of his shell. Together, the two explore the woods around their neighboring homes, and when Leslie discovers an ancient rope swing over a creek, they cross over the creek into a world limited only by the breadth and depth of their imaginations, a magical land Leslie christens "Terabithia."
Together, they build Terabithia and grow with it. As they fight and defeat imaginary enemies in Terabithia, Jesse and Leslie gain the courage to face their personal demons. Jesse struggles to find a way to gain his father's trust and the love and attention he so easily bestows on Jesse's younger sister May Belle, and resents the poverty in which his family is mired. He has to wear pink-and-white hand-me-down sneakers from his older sister, and nobody understands how much his art means to him -- until Leslie. Leslie, for her part, fights against the loneliness she has learned to imagine away when her author-parents get immersed in writing their latest book. Left to fend for herself much of the time, Leslie is a bright, imaginative girl whose lack of concern for the social mores of the grade-school set has made it difficult for her to make friends -- until Jesse.
Screenwriter David Paterson, who is book author Katherine Paterson's son (and the real-life Jesse on whom the story of Bridge to Terabithia was based) and co-writer Jeff Stockwell, steer very closely to the book's storyline, keeping the focus on the kids and their friendship. I'd had some concerns when the trailers came out that Disney was going to focus overly much on the nifty CGI that brings the world of Terabithia to life. In the book, those fantasy elements all happen in Jesse's and Leslie's imaginations, and there aren't a lot of specifics about Terabithia and its mythical inhabitants.
Bringing the story to life on the big screen though, required getting visual, and the special effects team at Weta Digital (the outfit responsible for effects in the Lord of the Rings triology) did some outstanding work imagining what Terabithians might look like. The fantasy moments are well-done, especially in how they tend to mirror the real-life monsters and issues in Jesse and Leslie's world: the playground bullies like Gary and Janice, who might just have problems of their own to deal with, the grouchy teachers like "Monster Mouth" Myers, whose icy exterior belies a warm heart underneath, and the loving but imperfect parents who don't give enough affection or really understand.
Hutcherson and Robb are perfectly cast as Jesse and Leslie. Robb, who previously played Samantha in an American Girl movie, sparkles with wide-eyed wonder, and Hutcherson brings depth and sensitivity to his role in a way that makes me wonder what kind of actor he might mature into someday. Also worth noting is a nice performance by seven-year-old Bailee Madison as May Belle, who pulls off way more emotion than a lot of kids her age could handle. Zooey Deschanel has a good turn as hip music teacher Ms. Edmonds, object of Jesse's budding adolescent affections.
The beauty of Bridge to Terabithia was always about the friendship, and that aspect remains the focal point of the film as well. Hutcherson and Robb have great chemistry together and totally become Jesse and Leslie. As in real life, there is sorrow in the story to temper the gladness, but the beauty of both the original book and this fine adaptation is in its gentle handling of tragedy, and the sweet, hopeful note on which it ends.