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THE BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA (***Ĺ)

Movie Review by: Jim "Good Old JR" Rutkowski
Directed by: Gabor Csupo
Written by: Jeff Stockwell, Adapted from Katherine Patersonís novel: "Bridge to Terabithia"
Starring:
Anna Sophia Robb, Josh Hutcherson, Zooey Deschanel,
Running time: 95 minutes Released: 02/16/07
Rated PG for thematic elements including bullying, some peril and mild language.
"...if this film feels a little like Panís Labyrinth lite, thatís not necessarily a bad thing."
Trailers for the screen adaptation of Katherine Paterson's children's book Bridge to Terabithia have advertised it as a CGI-laden fantasy, a far cry from the rich coming-of-age tale beloved by several generations of readers. Thankfully, the misleading trailers give way to a film that stays true to its source, using talented kid and adult actors and a remarkable attention to detail to perfectly capture the delicate, minute rites of passage that define growing up. And if this film feels a little like Panís Labyrinth lite, thatís not necessarily a bad thing.

We begin when Jess Aarons (Josh Hutcherson), an artist and runner from a poor, rural family, reluctantly befriends Leslie (AnnaSophia Robb), a transplant from the big city who dresses like a punk rocker and couldn't care less who thinks she's a freak. Jess resents Leslie at first for beating him in a race at school, but he eventually succumbs to her charm and limitless imagination.

The two explore the woods near their homes and Leslie creates a fictional world called Terabithia, in which the menacing figures in their lives (from the school bully to Jess' strict father) are transformed into CGI giants, ogres and big bad rodents. The fantasy scenes are standard stuff but brief, as much more screen time is devoted to the everyday occurrences in Jess' life. He deals with the class jerks, develops a crush on his gorgeous music teacher (a luminous Zooey Deschanel), and tries to understand his relationship with his parents as he begins the halting process of growing up. Only in Terabithia, where Leslie encourages his artistic talent and imagination, is Jess able to escape from it all and make sense of the confusions of adolescence.

Director Gabor Csupo, who defined a generation of Nickelodeon watchers with his "Rugrats" and "Aaah! Real Monsters" series, brings a similar kid-friendly touch to the film. There may be one pop montage too many, but Csupo nails the important details of childhood, like the indignity of trying to avoid but also having to stick up for your little sister, and the secrets that turn bullies into bullies to begin with. He is assisted by Michael Chapman's lush photography of the New Zealand countryside (standing in for the book's rural Virginia), and screenwriters Jeff Stockwell and David Paterson (son of the author), who effectively maintain the book's matter-of-fact delivery.

Robb and Hutcherson are both up to the challenge of their roles, though Robb, who looks like an elfin Keira Knightley, seems far too pretty and worldly to be the class tomboy. All the kids in supporting roles perform admirably, particularly seven-year old Bailey Madison as Jess' younger sister May Belle, and Lauren Clinton as Łber-bully Janice Avery. Robert Patrick is especially excellent as Jess' dad, and he and Hutcherson effectively capture the awkward period in which a father has to help his son turn into a man, even if neither is ready for it.

The heartbreaking end of the story is well remembered by anyone who read the book, and won't be spoiled here, but it is where Bridge to Terabithia truly lifts itself above most kids' movies. It makes clear that CGI battles, in Terabithia or elsewhere, aren't what have the power to blow children away; it's simple human drama, played beautifully, that leaves kids staring in wonder and adults wiping their eyes. A note for parents: The sad ending is not graphic, but for younger kids may invite some tough questions on the ride home.

What's most remarkable about Bridge to Terabithia is how, even though it is ostensibly set in the present, it feels like a period piece. Kids are given free run of the woods to explore, and have no more after-school commitments than a footrace. It's a kind of freedom many kids today will never know, but one that, as the movie makes beautifully clear, is completely necessary in order to survive childhood. For anyone who ever had a treehouse or a fort made of pillows, or for anyone who wishes they did, Bridge to Terabithia sparks the imagination as much as the land of Terabithia itself.

THE BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA © 2007 Buena Vista Pictures Distribution
All Rights Reserved

Review © 2007 Alternate Reality, Inc.

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