Frustrated with his family's financial health and the bullies at school, Jess (Josh Hutcherson, "Zathura") loses himself daily in his drawings to escape his hardships. When he's beaten in a foot race by the new girl at school, Leslie (AnnaSophia Robb, "Because of Winn-Dixie"), Jess strikes up an uneasy friendship with the upbeat young lady and they escape to the nearby woods to play. There, the children unleash the fantasy world of Terabithia from their imaginations, anointing themselves the king and queen of the land. As the fantasy grows stronger, Jess is hit with some powerful life lessons, desperate for Leslie's guidance during these troubling times.
If you're new to the world of "Terabithia," the fine folks at Walt Disney Studios have been endlessly promoting the film as a wild special effects fantasy, complete with towering monsters, sparkly blue rays of magic, and fairy tale might. The picture does feature this material, but only in small, considered doses. "Terabithia" isn't about enchantment or fanciful jeopardy; this is a story about the possibility of the mind, and how it processes guilt, grief, and love. I'll admit this doesn't make for an easily marketable night at the movies, but it's imperative to note the reality of the story, therefore allowing audiences a fighting chance to accept this deeply poignant production.
After years of toiling away on Nickelodeon properties, director Gabor Csupo makes a thrilling debut with "Terabithia." He seems to understand what's being requested of him by both the book and the heart behind the story (the script was co-authored by Katherine's son and inspiration for the book, David), and preserves the literary experience the best he can. This is a fine piece of direction, contrasting the luminous daydream of Terabithia for Jess and Leslie with the difficulties of their school and suffocating family lives.
Csupo never speaks down to the characters or the audience, refusing to push style or artifice too far, and permits the film to breathe in the instants of stillness and personal discovery. Terabithia is an incredible place of trolls and other beasts, but the filmmaker is careful not to be lulled in by the laziness of special effects; Csupo makes Jess and Leslie his top priority, consequently creating two rounded, intelligent pre-teen characters that stay in your system long after the film has ended. When was the last time a movie accomplished that?
Csupo really won me over with his depiction of Jess and Leslie's school life. It's a small detail, but the music class, presided over by Jess's crush Ms. Edmunds (played by national treasure Zooey Deschanel), evokes a potent, earnest feeling of innocence and creativity, which spills over to Jess's drawings and how that artistic release is paramount to his very being. It's the corners of the film that make the experience all the more generous.
The acting is what stunned me the most about "Terabithia." While Hutcherson has been solid in terrific films, and gives a tender reading of Jess's isolation here, Robb is the performance that took me by complete surprise. The now 14-year-old actress gave an aggressively shrill performance in "Winn-Dixie," yet in "Terabithia," she instills Leslie with a miraculous sense of life. The architect of the magical realm, you believe Leslie when she introduces this unpredictable surge of imagination to Jess, and the open-heart friendliness toward the boy is touching and achingly humane. If this is what Robb is capable of, and able to stave off the ick of indication she's demonstrated before, I'm ready for great things to come from this actress.
What I found hard to swallow is that old cold prickly: religion. A provocative theme in Paterson's book, the film can't find an easy entryway to the discussion of either Leslie's church curiosity or Jess's bible-fed guilt. The conversations about Jesus and the ominous nature of hell tend to jut out of the film in unusually sharp ways, with Csupo failing to organically thread the spiritual subplot into the picture. It's a small blemish, but one that gnaws slowly on the rest of the picture.
You take your kids to "Night at the Museum" or "Charlotte's Web," and you've employed a temporary babysitter. Roll them over to "Bridge to Terabithia" and you'll feed their minds with a rich tapestry of emotional investment unheard of in today's family film landscape. It's a gem, and should not be missed.