Seldom has a movie trailer been as misleading as the one for Bridge to Terabithia, the new adaptation of Vermont author Katherine Paterson's 1977 young adult novel. The trailer, which features kids frolicking in a magical world, makes the movie look like a transparent attempt to cash in on the popularity of the Harry Potter franchise. A recent skit on the E! channel's satirical show "The Soup" mocked the trailer - and, by extension, the film - as a collage of fantasy clichés.
Which is too bad, because Bridge to Terabithia is none of that. It's not about living fantasies but about creating them. It's also, for an adaptation of a classic distributed by Disney, remarkably un-cutesified. Even a controversial exchange of words about salvation and damnation, which has fueled attempts to ban the book from school libraries, made it onto film.
Jesse ("Jess") Aarons (Josh Hutcherson) is a country boy with financially struggling parents and four sisters. ("I'd trade 'em all for a good dog," he grouses.) Like many a sensitive kid in junior high, he's learned to duck his head and keep quiet - especially when bully Janice Avery comes around.
Then Leslie Burke (AnnaSophia Robb) moves in next door. Her status as Cool, Quirky Girl is established when she enters the classroom with an overflowing backpack, wearing an outfit Molly Ringwald might have sported in 1985. Leslie's parents are writers who - gasp! - don't have a TV. Bolder than Jess, Leslie shows him he doesn't have to knuckle under at school. She also leads him across a creek into a stretch of forest where the two children use their imaginations to create a magical world - Terabithia.
Here's where the fantasy part comes in. Terabithia doesn't focus on the sumptuous banquet of make-believe offered by the Potter or Lord of the Rings adaptations; it's about how that fantasy gets cooked up in the kitchen. Rambling in the woods, Jess and Leslie let their imaginations ramble along with them, and some of their creations come to life - or appear to. Director Gabor Csupo (Rugrats) and screenwriters Jeff Stockwell and David Paterson (the novelist's son) have found subtle ways to show how young minds draw beauty and terror from the mundane, as when a dark clump of trees seems to become a menacing giant, or a pesky squirrel grows fangs and attacks.
Csupo draws good performances from the young actors, too. Hutcherson is a solid, nuanced presence; when Jess feels pain, you can see it in his eyes. Robb (Because of Winn-Dixie) has a wispy voice and seems almost too old for the part, as if she'd rather be posing on red carpets than pretending she believes in fairies. Still, her expressive face sells the character.
Those fine performances give real heft to a tragic event late in the story. Like the adult fairy tale Pan's Labyrinth, Terabithia presents fantasy as a way of surviving realities that are hard for anyone - let alone children - to face. Unlike Pan, Terabithia is probably not too disturbing for most young viewers. The "tearjerker" part of the movie is presented with such low-key realism that it may even hit adults hardest, while kids struggle to absorb what's going on. (The scene that drops like a bomb in the novel passes very quickly on-screen.)
Those who go to the theater expecting spells and epic battles may be disappointed - if they aren't too busy sniffling at the end of the story. But adults and younger viewers who recognize themselves in Paterson's characters will be rewarded with a film that doesn't talk down to anyone.
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