Bridge to Terabithia
The best surprise of the year so far, this entrancing, heartbreaking family film is a rare movie I would recommend without reservation to almost anyone. (Well, okay, anyone over the age of 8 or 9).
Sure, the target audience is probably that tricky 10-to-12-year-old demographic who think they want to see Spider-Man. But let's assume you're over that, but not so grown up you've forgotten what childhood is like. You owe it to yourself to drag them to Bridge to Terabithia instead. Tell 'em the other thing's sold out!
Josh Hutcherson (Zathura) is Jesse, the only boy among five siblings in a not-so-well-off family out in the country someplace. Jesse is a good kid but he hasn't really emerged from his shell yet. He likes to draw and he likes to run - which makes it a bitter pill when the new girl in his class sprints past him in the big race. Leslie (The Reaping's AnnaSophia Robb) is quick on her feet, smart, independent, and an instant target for the school bully. She also turns out to be Jesse's next-door neighbour.
They become fast friends, intrepid explorers of the distant lands in the woodlands over the creek - a magical place they christen 'Terabithia', and over which they assume sovereignty.
In most children's movies this would be the cue for an escapist adventure in CGI-land (Narnia is an obvious example). In this one, director Gabor Csupo pulls off a neat balancing act, indicating clearly how Terabithia comes to life for these imaginative kids, but also keeping us grounded in the reality that surrounds them.
Csupo has spent most of his career writing and producing Rugrats and The Wild Thornberrys at Nickelodeon, but it turns out he's a first-rate director, eliciting sensitive performances across the board and digging out the emotional cross-currents that gives this story a real complexity. We may not warm to Robert Patrick as Jesse's strict dad, for instance, but we can absolutely understand why he reacts as he does and know that he loves his son very deeply in his way.
Zooey Deschanel - an actress who seems incapable of being boring - is good casting for the music teacher, Ms Edmonds, who recognises Jesse's artistic talent.
Unexpectedly (at least it's unexpected if, like me, you haven't read Katherine Paterson's 1977 novel) the movie detours to take a potshot at joyless religiosity - a brave touch for any American movie these days, even if it does come out of leftfield. But without giving away too much, the film dares venture much farther than that, traversing challenging emotional realms with assurance and even wisdom. (Comparisons with Pan's Labyrinth are inevitable, and not necessarily to the American film's disadvantage.)
The screenplay, incidentally, is co-written by Jeff Stockwell and one David Paterson, Katherine Paterson's son, and the role model for Jesse in the book.
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