It’s a lesson that no one is especially eager to learn but must be done when you’re a kid: it’s that animals tend to get the shaft (literally) in books and films. (They also die on TV shows, but are usually phrased out without anyone explaining where they went, a less traumatic route, so you can assume they ran away due to exposure to overacting.) Take “Where the Red Fern Grows,” in which a plucky youngster’s beloved dog winds up dying from injuries sustained in a raccoon hunt, and then his companion dog stops eating out of grief and dies, too. Or, to switch genres, “The Neverending Story,” in which the hero’s horse perishes in the Swamp of Sadness, though it is miraculously revived at the end. In another book-turned-film “Bridge to Terabithia,” by author Katherine Paterson, starring Josh Hutchinson and AnnaSophia Robb, it’s even worse because a) it’s an accident, b) it happens when one of the friends is off having a blast elsewhere and if he’d just invited her…and c) the victim (AnnaSophia) doesn’t believe in Heaven. That is admittedly a lot of angst to juggle but in the right hands, well worth introducing one’s kid to.
In addition to discussing death and dying in an age-appropriate way, as well as being a lot of fun in many places, the movie also tucks in a feminist message, i.e. “Anything boys can do, girls can do better!” at least when it comes to preteen foot races at recesses, but the movie (mostly) avoids any preachiness. The main character (Josh) and his less-than-thrilled cohorts discover this at the beginning of the film when they grudgingly permit AnnaSophia to compete against them – and she beats the pants off them all. Though Josh, who tends to feel like a misfit at home (he feels his parents favor his sisters) and at school with his peers, is understandably disappointed, he winds up befriending AnnaSophia, and together the two form a magical world (the titular Terabithia) in the woods. There was a made-for-TV-film of “Bridge,” on Wonderworks when I was growing up, but unsurprisingly, technology has improved much since then, so Josh’s and AnnaSophia’s adventures are far more sophisticated, thanks to computer generating (those scenes are shot in Auckland, New Zealand). Toward the end, the tragedy occurs when AnnaSophia accidentally dies while Josh is on a museum day trip with his Manic Pixie Art Teacher (Zooey Deschanel). This raises all sorts of questions, but in the end, Josh is able to resolve some of them and even introduce his younger sister (Bailee Madison) to the world of Terabithia (after a safer bridge has been built).
The book was written to help the author’s son come to terms with his grief over a classmate’s death. It does, as I mentioned, raise Important Questions that can’t always be satisfactorily answered, but as long as there’s genuine love and empathy in those left behind, the movie reminds us, they don’t need to be. True, the symbolic bridge that Josh winds up constructing looks exactly like something a boy that age would build if he had a crack team of set design artists helping, but the film is excellent anyway.