New-Release Tuesday: Bridge to Terabithia

Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.

Jesse Aarons is a quiet, introspective middle-school student. He’s spent all summer getting up early to practice running so he can be the fastest kid in his class. Most of his time is spent doing chores on the farm to help his parents make ends meet. In the little free time he has left over, he draws imaginary worlds—filled with fantasy creatures—in his sketchbook. All he really wants is to be accepted and to fit in… at home as well as at school.

Things start to change the first day of school when he meets Leslie Burke, the new girl whose family has purchased the farmhouse next door. She dresses differently, she acts differently. Like Jesse, she is an outsider. The difference is that she is comfortable with who she is and is determined to befriend Jesse. This burgeoning friendship is going to transform Jesse’s life.

Let’s be clear up front that Bridge to Terabithia is not the fantasy-adventure movie the trailer might suggest. If you watch this movie thinking that’s what you are going to see, you will probably leave disappointed. Quite the contrary, it is a deeply moving drama that addresses the struggle with identity and acceptance that many “tweens” and teens face.

As Jesse and Leslie grow closer, the land of Terabithia is born when they find an old rope swing and use it to cross the creek into the woods bordering their homes. As they explore, Leslie encourages Jesse to “open his mind wide” and unleash the imagination that, to this point, he has hidden within his sketchbook. Together they face imaginary foes in Terabithia and, as they overcome them, the strength they gain begins to influence Jesse’s life in other positive ways. The key thing here is that Terabithia is at no point a real place; it is clear within the movie that it exists only in the minds of these two young children. It is a beautiful portrayal of the power of imagination and friendship.

To tell you any more would reveal too much if you didn’t see this when it played in theaters. Suffice it to say that Bridge to Terabithia is very faithful to the award-winning book by Katherine Paterson. If you’ve read the book you know what lies ahead in the story. If you haven’t, it’s enough to know that there are moments that will bring tears to the eyes of all but the most cynical.

The casting in Bridge to Terabithia is superb. Having read the book, I had a fresh mental picture in my head of the characters. I wasn’t the slightest bit disappointed. Josh Hutcherson and Anna Sophia Robb play the lead roles of Jesse and Leslie. They have great onscreen chemistry and already display a significant talent at their young ages. I was also surprised by the strong performance by Bailee Madison, playing Jesse’s little sister May Belle. The rest of the cast rises to the same level of excellence.

Movies based on beloved books are often chancy things. Happily, this may be among the best translations of a book to the big screen that I have seen, and I don’t say that lightly. This is a very, very good thing in the case of Bridge to Terabithia, serving to introduce this heart-warming tale to new generations of readers. Adults will also likely find the movie just as engrossing as children.

There is a message here about strength of character and the value of friendship—and yes, love—that can’t help but leave a lasting impression with audience members.

Bridge to Terabithia is new on Netflix. You can also stream it with Amazon Prime and YouTube.