Dir: Gabor Csupo. US. 2007. 95mins.
Walden Media's latest take on a children's literature classic, Bridge To Terabithia is an understated, touching and largely faithful version of Katherine Paterson's pre-teen novel. With animation artist Gabor Csupo making his live-action directing debut, the fantasy-adventure nicely captures the spirit of Paterson's boy-girl story about friendship, courage, imagination and loss. Good theatrical runs followed by strong video performances should be in the offing, though there's a danger that some kids may be disappointed to see far fewer effects than in recent fantasies like Walden's The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe.
Walden's Narnia distributor Walt Disney releases Terabithia wide in North America this weekend (with the support of a TV ad campaign that has been criticised for putting too much emphasis on the film's one full-on fantasy effects sequence). Given that the novel has been popular since its first publication in the 1970s, title recognition alone should result in a sizeable early audience of boomer parents and their kids.
A Narnia-size gross is very unlikely, but something in the region of the $67.4m achieved by Walden and Disney's 2003 release Holes should be possible.
Summit Entertainment has been licensing the film to independent distributors outside North America and most major-territory openings are slated for between now and early May. International distributors may have a harder time pulling in audiences, with performances in individual territories varying according to how well the US novel is known locally.
The novel (which makes several references to CS Lewis' Narnia tales) has a gentleness that might have been crushed in a contemporary movie. Screenwriters David Paterson (the author's son) and Jeff Stockwell (The Dangerous Lives Of Altar Boys) do shift the action to the present day; otherwise they make only minor changes to the story of Jess (Hutcherson), a lonely, artistic boy who has to deal with bullies at school and with four sisters and a strict father in his poor rural home.
When Leslie (Robb), the vivacious daughter of two writers, moves into a neighbouring house, she befriends Jess, encourages his drawing and helps him stand up for himself at school. And in the nearby woods, the two friends become the king and queen of the imaginary kingdom of Terabithia.
Csupo, best known for his Rugrats animated TV show and movies, unfolds this more realistic narrative with a steady directorial hand. He's a little hampered, though, by the fact that the film script retains a lot of incident - and even dialogue - from the book, leaving little time for scenes that might have deepened the sense of a bond between Jess and Leslie.
Csupo handles the story's tragic twist (which Disney is asking reviewers not to reveal) well and delivers a third act that is genuinely moving and then uplifting without being trite.
The effects, by Weta Digital, are used judiciously to bring the creatures that Jess and Leslie imagine in Terabithia - from dragonfly warriors to giant trolls - to life.
Paterson's book left it up to readers to imagine what the children's fantasy world must look like, and the film (perhaps for financial as well as creative reasons) only lets the imaginary creatures and their world emerge occasionally from the real woods where Jess and Leslie go to escape home and school. Only in the film's final moments do we get a full scale, effects-heavy version of Terabithia.
Josh Hutcherson, previously seen in RV and Zathura, is excellent as the thoughtful, diffident Jess. Annasophia Robb, from Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, is good too, though some fans of the book might consider her physical appearance to be a slightly Disney-fied version of the character. The supporting cast includes Zooey Deschanel (The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy) as the kindly teacher on whom Jess has a schoolboy crush.
The film's sincere, naturalistic feel is enhanced by the New Zealand locations (which stand in for rural eastern US settings) and the work of veteran cinematographer Michael Chapman (Raging Bull).
Hal Lieberman Company
Walt Disney Pictures