The imaginary world dreamed up by two youngsters in Katherine Paterson’s coming-of-age classic has been realized imperfectly, but with intelligence and sensitivity nonetheless, in “Bridge to Terabithia.” Some literal-minded attempts at magical realism are redeemed by the film’s emotional texture, winning chemistry between the tyke leads and scrupulous adherence to a childlike point of view. A tougher sell than Walden Media’s recent kid-lit adaptation, “Charlotte’s Web,” the superior “Bridge” should play well theatrically but may connect better with audiences on homevid; in either venue, parents and children should have tissues at the ready.
Paterson’s much-loved 1977 novel has resonated strongly with generations of young readers, particularly those who were more comfortable growing up in worlds of their own making than on the school playground. Ten-year-old farm boy Jess Aarons (Josh Hutcherson) is just such a misfit, squashed between four sisters, starved for affection from his gruff dad (Robert Patrick), and relentlessly picked on by his classmates.
Jess doesn’t expect to find a kindred spirit in Leslie Burke (AnnaSophia Robb), a precocious girl with a short crop of blonde hair and a slightly mischievous streak, whose family has just moved into the house next door. But the two soon become inseparable, as Jess’ talent for drawing finds a natural complement in Leslie’s passion for storytelling and make-believe.
One day the kids swing across a creek on a dangling rope and find themselves deep in a secluded patch of forest. And so is born the secret kingdom of Terabithia, where an abandoned treehouse becomes the castle from which Jess and Leslie rule as king and queen, fending off imaginary dangers that have an unusual way of dovetailing with the obstacles they face in real life.
Working from a fine screenplay by Jeff Stockwell (who dealt with thematically similar material in “The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys”) and David Paterson (the author’s son), Hungarian-born helmer Gabor Csupo shows admirable restraint in slowly easing viewers into Jess and Leslie’s world. But Csupo, an animator (the “Rugrats” movies) making his first live-action feature, is also eager to show off his arsenal of digital effects, which prove to be the film’s raison d’etre as well as its near-undoing.
The opportunity to bring Terabithia to full cinematic life no doubt reps a key selling point, and there are certainly antecedents for visualizing a fantasy realm of this nature (most notably Peter Jackson’s “Heavenly Creatures,” which, like “Bridge to Terabithia,” was expertly serviced by Weta Digital). But while the book wisely left most of the details to the reader’s imagination, the film presents its version of Terabithia as the flashy main attraction. As initially exciting as it is to see Jess and Leslie dodging vultures, oversized rodents and one ugly giantess, these prosaic flights of fancy inevitably speak less to the power of the imagination than to the power of CGI.
Ironically, the mundane realities of the duo’s normal lives prove more readily absorbing, as Csupo channels the awkwardness of pre-adolescence with perfect pitch. Despite the use of contempo kids’ slang, there’s a timelessness to the details of Jess’ school life that feels exactly right, from the music lessons taught by Ms. Edmonds (a lovely Zooey Deschanel), whom Jess has a serious crush on, to the everyday social terror of riding the bus. With a great deal of empathy and very little preaching, the film advances a message of kindness and open-mindedness even toward those who would seem to deserve it least.
Patrick is very well-cast as Jess’ stern, withholding dad, while Bailey Madison is almost distractingly cute as Jess’ adoring younger sister May Belle. Other key characters, like school bully Janice Avery (Lauren Clinton), are memorably inhabited.
But ultimately, the film rests on its two leads. Crucially, Csupo understands that this is a young boy’s story; at no point does the viewer feel emotionally out of sync with Hutcherson, whose Jess is by turns shy, gentle, awkward and moody, and never less than wholly sympathetic. The elfin-featured Robb, who had a grand time playing a super-spoiled brat in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” here puts wide, intensely blue eyes and spunky delivery in service of a wonderfully eccentric character.
Viewers familiar with the novel will anticipate the story’s shift into darker territory, and they’ll be relieved to know that it’s handled as delicately as possible, and all the more moving because of it. Yet it also rips a hole in the narrative that the grandiose finale tries rather feebly to repair, ending the film on a note that doesn’t ring entirely true.
The dark earth tones of Michael Chapman’s cinematography invest the forest sequences with an enticing sense of mystery and danger, counterbalanced by the more benign wonderment of Aaron Zigman’s score. Costume designer Barbara Darragh deserves mention for her smart decision to clothe and accessorize Robb like a tyro hippie.