For parents who wish their children could enjoy the wonderment of “Pan’s Labyrinth” without the film’s dark edge, consider “Bridge to Terabithia,” an overlooked gem that brings children’s fantasy to the heights of its game. Though the latter film can’t match the visual splendor of “Pan,” “Bridge,” which is based on a semi-classic children’s book by Katherine Paterson, radiates with youthful imagination and the joys of using it to abandon the everyday. Many cinematic fantasies use the medium to immerse viewers in imagined worlds, but “Bridge” focuses on the act of dreaming up such worlds and, in the process, captures a youthful spirit.
Though it’s worlds away from Franco’s Spain of “Pan,” the protagonist’s reality in “Bridge” could be better. Preteen Jesse Aarons (Josh Hutcherson, who looks like a young Jason Bateman) is a boy in a large family led by a struggling dad (Robert Patrick, onetime “T-2” star showing humanity). The effect that the family’s economic situation has on Jesse is clear when he must wear an older sister’s pink hand-me-down sneakers to school. He carries the family’s burdens to class, where he encounters bullies, but soon connects with a new neighbor, Leslie Burke (AnnaSophia Robb, humanized after her exaggerated role as Violet in Tim Burton’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”). Also deemed a misfit by her peers, Leslie inspires Jesse to escape to a forest behind their houses, in which they imagine a magical kingdom existing out beyond a creek.
While the details sound routine for children’s fantasy, “Bridge” transcends the usual genre treatment by rooting its characters in the everyday. True, Jesse and Leslie do imagine forest elements coming to life – but when owls transform into bombers and a tree awakens, CGI appears in brief brushstrokes to illuminate the characters’ imagination instead of submerging them in a cold videogame-like palette. “Bridge” stays true to its source material by encouraging its young viewers to dream, while the bulk of children’s fantasy on film quells imaginative faculties as the effects teams do all the work.
Since the rest of us have lived through childhood – and hopefully have held onto some of it – we are left in awe of “Bridge’s” authenticity. While celebrating the imagination, the film tributes friendship and familial bonds without serving the messages in the usual sugary flavors. During a sublime, heartwarming climax – which follows a tragedy that may not be appropriate for the very young – mature viewers wish we could relive childhood and appreciate its innocence, especially our younger siblings whom we too often regarded as an annoyance. This honest film reminds us that childhood is just over a bridge we can traverse through memory.