Bridge to Terabithia is much less than it's being advertised as, which makes it much more of a good thing.
Pitched to the public as some latter-day Chronicles of Narnia, complete with scads of CGI-driven special effects, Terabithia is a much gentler, wiser film. It's certainly no knock-off. And while the beguiling, bucolic world it brings to the screen may seem overly contrived at times, its core values -- friendship, imagination, compassion -- are always worth celebrating, especially when depicted with the care and reverence so obvious here.
Based on Katherine Paterson's 1978 Newbery Medal-winning novel, Terabithia centers on young Jess (Josh Hutcherson), a boy seemingly on the outs with everyone. His two older sisters find him a pain, the bullies at school taunt him mercilessly and even his father doesn't seem to care for having him around. About the only thing Jess can do is run really fast, which is the reason he's so looking forward to a field day at his school.
But when the big day arrives, Jess finds himself beaten to the finish line not by one of his many tormentors, but by a new kid in school. A girl. Oh, the ignominy!
Not to worry, for it turns out that new girl Leslie (AnnaSophia Robb) is quite the charmer: smart, cute, approachable, outgoing. Even better: She lives next door. What more could a preteen boy want?
How about a great sense of wonder, an eagerness to be creative, a determination to shape her world and not be shaped by it?
Leslie is a find of the first order -- and to his credit, Jess is fully aware of how lucky he is. Not to suggest any funny business; these are elementary schoolers, after all, and thankfully, Terabithia never makes them act anything beyond their years. But for Jess, who lives on a farm with his hardscrabble, no-nonsense parents (Robert Patrick and Kate Butler), Leslie proves a godsend. She urges Jess to be creative, to use his imagination and enjoy the limitless flights of fancy that entails. The two are soon bounding through the surrounding countryside, imagining themselves as the king and queen of a wondrous kingdom, a land of enchantment filled with creatures good and evil.
Leslie names their kingdom Terabithia, and the two friends use it as their retreat from the unpleasantness around them -- especially the unpleasantness at school, where both are continually looked on as outsiders, objects of mockery and scorn.
Bridge to Terabithia takes a while to get its hooks into the audience; for the first half-hour, it seems like just another story about picked-on kids who bond as a shield against their oppressors. Occasionally, the screenwriters try to force-feed some religious doctrine to their audience, as when Leslie, Jess and his irrepressible younger sister May Belle (spunky Bailee Madison) talk about what happens in the afterlife as they ride in the back of their dad's pickup truck.
There's also the matter of Zooey Deschanel, on hand to play the world's coolest, cutest music teacher. It's easy to understand why Jess is infatuated with her (in fact, it's hard to understand why every other boy in the class isn't), and she does play a key part in the film's final act. But until then, she seems woefully under-utilized.
In fact, cynics could have a field day with this movie. While Robb (Because of Winn-Dixie) makes Leslie's wide-eyed sense of wonder both believable and admirable, there are moments when her insouciance toward the real world is a little hard to take. And you keep wondering where the film's conflict is going to come from; for most of Terabithia, problems -- from finding Dad's lost keys to de-fanging the school bully -- are minor and easily solved.
But there's a persistent innocence to this movie that will work wonders on all but the most churlish. And when events take a truly tragic turn toward the end, the film's emotional pull becomes irresistible. Parents of the very young should be warned that the final act, though happy, is no happily-ever-after fairy tale.
As for all that CGI? Yeah, there are a few trolls, hairy winged creatures and dark lords, all given form by the same magicians Peter Jackson used on The Lord of the Rings and King Kong. But most of the wonders of Terabithia, the kingdom as well as the movie, remain in the imaginations of their young king and queen -- and in the imaginations of all those in the audience still young enough at heart to dream along.