From the special effects-laden trailers, "Bridge to Terabithia" looks for all the world like the second coming of "The Chronicles of Narnia." It's not -- and that's a very good thing.
Firmly grounded in the real world and based on Katherine Paterson's 1977 Newbery Award-winning novel, "Bridge to Terabithia" is a wonderfully heart-wrenching love story for tweens, teens, and even adults who fondly remember when a friendship could be ignited by a gesture as simple as offering a stick of Juicy Fruit.
Set in a present day nondescript rural town, the film brings together two fifth-graders who couldn't come from more diverse backgrounds. Jess (Josh Hutcherson) is an aspiring artist and a local boy lost in the shuffle between four sisters and his parents' financial troubles. In contrast, Leslie (AnnaSophia Robb) is the well-to-do new girl in town, and with her boyish looks and trendy high-tops, she's instantly branded as the oddball whose writer parents don't own a TV.
Together, they escape the pressures of the real world by swinging across a creek on an "enchanted" rope and entering a forest Leslie dubs Terabithia, a world fueled by their imaginations and filled with dragonfly warriors, hairy vultures and other fanciful creatures. Watching Terabithia come alive courtesy of Weta Digital requires a leap of faith not needed in the novel (which describes Terabithia in only the vaguest terms), and as a result, the computer-generated special effects, while spectacular, often call too much attention to themselves.
Thankfully, first-time live-action director Gabor Csupo, best known for his work on "The Simpsons" and "Rugrats," keeps the CG effects to a minimum and allows the source material to shine through. (It helps that Paterson's son, David, is a screenwriter along with Jeff Stockwell.)
The strength of the film -- as with the novel -- lies in the emotional relationship between Jess and Leslie as they struggle through class, family and social issues. They love each in the deepest nonromantic sense, and when they finally embrace, it holds more passion than the steamiest of on-screen kisses.
The film is also carried by a strong cast led by Robb, who with her disarming smile and short blond bob has all the presence of a young Tatum O'Neal. Also worth noting is Robert Patrick, as Jess' father, who provides a feeling of sternness and warmth to an otherwise two-dimensional character, and just as important, a big shoulder to cry on. As it turns out, there are some realities of life that you can't escape, even in a magic kingdom like Terabithia.
"Bridge to Terabithia." MPAA rating: PG for thematic elements including bullying, some peril and mild language. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes. In general release.