The Uses of Enchantment

Bridge to Terabithia

Josh Hutcherson, AnnaSophia Robb, and Zooey Deschanel star a film written by Jeff Stockwell and David Paterson and directed by Gabor Csupo.

Reviewed by D.J. Palladino

Consider the high-concept studio pitch: A child escapes from traumatizing experiences into a rich fantasy world of monsters. The child then defeats the monsters, simultaneously clearing up pesky problems back home. Maybe it isn’t elegant, but it is 26 words and furthermore describes The Wizard of Oz, The Chronicles of Narnia, Pan’s Labyrinth (without happy ending), and now this very fine film based on Katherine Paterson’s 1978 Newberry-winning novel. It’s magical realism for kids. All I need now is a fancy German name like Kindertraumaphantasiegebilde to make me famous for noticing it.

The only real surprise is that it took so long to make it onscreen. And, despite the evidence of television and movie previews, the movie hews very carefully to a book that most 20-year-olds in this country had to read in school but loved anyway. The story of Jesse Aarons and Leslie Burke, great kids with imperfect families, Bridge to Terabithia chronicles friendship blooming in a private world painstakingly created across a big creek in rural America. The genius of the novel, which is mimicked here, is its avoidance of the novelist’s tricks and gimmicks (the screenplay was written by the author’s son). When bad times hit, they are sudden and unprepared for, and as witnesses we want to run off to Terabithia as soon as possible, too.

Directed by Gabor Csupo, whose previous life was in animation (The Simpsons, Rugrats), Terabithia is not sparklingly ingenious, though it’s ultimately winning in its earthbound aspects. Josh Hutcherson (Jesse) is a little stiff, but AnnaSophia Robb as Leslie carries this young-adult tear-jerker to the edge of probability and then, because this film demands a little extra kindertraumaphantasiegebilde, convinces us of the vital power of monster squirrels and trolls. All in all it’s the kind of fantasy that wets every eye and will no doubt play well in seventh-grade classrooms as long as there is reality worth escaping from.

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