It's vaguely ironic that the latest film adaptation of Katherine Paterson's children's book Bridge To Terabithia is such a iconic example of '00s filmmaking, when the book itself reads so much like a classic '70s film, complete with miserablist sensibilities and tragic ending. Less ironic, but surprising nonetheless, is the film's respect for its source material, probably attributable to producer/co-scripter David Paterson, the author's son. In his hands, and the hands of director Gabor Csupo, the book generally comes alive as written, except with a Lord Of The Rings-esque special-effects mentality that periodically takes over the story.
That story largely concerns the unlikely friendship between farm kid Josh Hutcherson and his new neighbor, free-spirited tomboy AnnaSophia Robb. He's neglected and low on the pecking order in a house full of bossy teenagers and demanding younger siblings; she's the instantly out-of-place bohemian offspring of a couple of city writers who've just moved to the country. After some awkward false starts, Hutcherson accepts Robb's talent for making up stories as a complement to his own art skills, which have been largely unencouraged by everyone but bright-eyed, hippie-dippie music teacher Zooey Deschanel. Eventually, Hutcherson and Robb supplement their troubled lives with a private fantasy world in the woods, populated by colorfully monstrous versions of the bullies plaguing them at school.
This is Csupo's feature directorial debut, but as creator, producer, and writer of Rugrats and The Wild Thornberrys, among several other series, he's had a long career in animation, and he handles the CGI setpieces masterfully. The extended creature-on-kid battles rack up so much tension that it's easy to forget that it's all imaginary. The real-life scenes are generally less engaging, with a little too much wide-eyed cuteness and After School Special calculation to really ring true. And the tragic ending arrives as flatly and awkwardly as it does in the book. Like the recent film version of The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, Bridge To Terabithia seems to have been selected for film adaptation largely because its central fantasy world lends itself to big '00s-style special-effects realization. But while it admirably explores how creativity changes lives, it could use a better grounding in what life outside that fantasy is like.