3 stars (out of four)
"Bridge to Terabithia," Katherine Paterson's 1977 tale of two kids and their imaginary world, is the kind of children's book that kids and their parents wept over--and the movie version, a big, faithful Walt Disney production, has moments grand and teary as well.
Elaborately mounted, expensively produced and filmed with style and empathy, it's an adaptation of Paterson's Newbery Medal-winning book that manages to expand the original vision, yet preserve much of its intense emotion. This movie "Terabithia" follows Jess Aarons and Leslie Burke, both 11 and growing up in the country in a Midwestern American-looking area (shot in New Zealand), and their shuttles between the world of reality and their mutual world of dreams. United by their active imaginations, sometimes tormented by bullies at school, these two create for themselves a magical little alternate kingdom--a kind of mini-Tolkienland that they imagine in the woods around their homes, reachable by swinging across a creek on a Huck Finn-style rope. And Terabithia gradually grows into a wonderland full of monsters, tree-beings, giants and winged marauders, centered on a real, ramshackle old tree house they find in the forest.
The movie "Terabithia" was co-written and produced by David Paterson, son of the original author, whose boyhood inspired the major character, Jess (Josh Hutcherson of "The Polar Express"). He's an artist and prolific drawer who lives with a gruff but fair-minded father (Robert Patrick), a mother and four sisters--including the adorably precocious tot, May Belle (Bailey Madison). Leslie (AnnaSophia Robb of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory") is a new kid in school, the fastest runner and an eloquent writer.
It's clear that their talent and lively imaginations are part of what make them freaks to their more obstreperous, older schoolmates. But those gifts also make Jess and Leslie pets for their flower-child teacher, Ms. ("Ooh Child") Edmonds (Zooey Deschanel). Their dreams save the kids by helping them escape--and director Gabor Csupo (who was the original animator for "The Simpsons" and later the producer/animator on "Rugrats" and "The Wild Thornberrys") heightens the movie's impact by keeping those dreams rooted in reality. The kids who bully them at school serve as inspirations for the monsters in Terabithia.
Terabithia itself becomes a symbol for the way that artists, even young ones, cope with life, obstacles and sorrows by creating and embellishing their own private worlds. One of the things that makes the movie--and the book before it--special, is the fact that the real-life story often becomes more absorbing than the fantasy that grows out of it. There's real depth in the characterizations of the two kids; Leslie and Jess have a rich-girl/poor-boy relationship and they're also country kid (Jess) and city smartie (Leslie). The young actors convey some of the complexities of that relationship as well as the tight bond that unites them.
As Jess, Hutcherson has the obsessive, walled-away introspection of a young artist, and Robb is incandescent as Leslie. She has a bit of the sparkle and adventurousness of the young Jodie Foster, and when she flies past Jess in the movie's early foot race, she makes your heart race too.
It may sound like a sentimental story, and, in many ways it is. But both the original book and Csupo's movie have a tough-mindedness that keep them from getting sticky or icky--and that keep the CGI and splashy magic visuals from taking over the movie. It's both earthy and magical, one for children and adults to enjoy together.
'Bridge to Terabithia'
Directed by Gabor Csupo; written by Jeff Stockwell and David Paterson, based on the book by Katherine Paterson; photographed by Michael Chapman; edited by John Gilbert; production designed by Rob Gillies; music by Aaron Zigman; produced by Hal Lieberman, Lauren Levine, David Paterson. A Walt Disney Pictures/Walden Media release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:36. MPAA rating: PG (for thematic elements including bullying, some peril and mild language).
Jess Aarons - Josh Hutcherson
Leslie Burke - AnnaSophia Robb
Ms. Edmonds - Zooey Deschanel
Jack Aarons - Robert Patrick
May Belle Aarons - Bailey Madison
Nancy Aarons - Kate Butler
Janice Avery - Lauren Clinton
Brenda Aarons - Devon Wood