[Screen It]

(2007) (Josh Hutcherson, Annasophia Robb) (PG)

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Drama: A boy and his new next-door neighbor escape from their problems by imagining a fantasy world in their nearby woods.
Things aren't going well for Jess Aarons (JOSH HUTCHERSON). A sensitive but sullen boy growing up in a poor farm family, he's hoping to win a big race at school, but his mom Nancy (KATE BUTLER) has thrown out his old shoes and replaced them with a hand-me-down pair from one of his older sisters.

With his dad Jack (ROBERT PATRICK) being somewhat distant and preoccupied with the family finances, Jess is surrounded by females, including his mom, older sisters Brenda (DEVON WOOD) and Ellie (EMMA FENTON), and younger sibling May Belle Aarons (BAILEY MADISON) who just wants to hang out with her big brother.

It doesn't get much better at school. While he has a crush on his music teacher Ms. Edmunds (ZOOEY DESCHANEL), towering school bully Janice Avery (LAUREN CLINTON) torments him when not charging everyone admission to the restroom, and new student Leslie Burke (ANNASOPHIA ROBB) has just beaten him and everyone else in that important foot race. Thus, not only must he deal with that disappointment, but he must also endure the taunting from his classmates, Scott Hoager (CAMERON WAKEFIELD) and Gary Fulcher (ELLIOT LAWLESS), who act like jerks toward him.

Despite Jess initially not liking Leslie for beating him in the race, the two soon become fast friends and escape from their troubles in the nearby woods. There, they find a deserted tree house and make it their own, with Leslie declaring the land to be Terabithia, a world filled with fantastical creatures, both good and bad. Encouraged by their ability to deal with the latter, they then set out to make things right in the real world.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
The disadvantage of being a kid is that many don't have the intellectual and/or emotional wherewithal to deal with any number of troubling emotional developments they might encounter at any moment. Death is obviously the biggest, but the rest can range from anything like divorce and other family strife to bullies at school.

That said, the advantage that most kids have over adults when it comes to such matters is their ability to escape, if just temporarily, from their problems. Some do it physically, whether it's simply hiding under the bed or in the closet, or to a tree house or some far off place (ours was the woods at the bottom of the hill) where neither the problem nor adults are allowed.

Others, however, take a more elaborate approach to such escapism and that's by doing so in their heads. They mentally manufacture elaborate worlds that are so different from reality that any troubles vanish, or they create characters that are able to deal with thematically similar issues, thus symbolically solving whatever ails them.

The two leads in the handsome looking adaptation of Katherine Paterson's popular book, "Bridge to Terabithia," end up doing both. For young Jess Aarons, he must not only deal with being so poor that his mom makes him wear his older sister's hand-me-down shoes, but also with various bullies at school. For his new next-door neighbor Leslie Burke, it's also dealing with a particular bully, as well as being the new kid at school.

Accordingly, and despite her beating Jess at a school foot race that was quite important to him, the two become kindred spirits and escape from their troubles and problems into the nearby woods. It's there that Leslie tells Jess to keep his mind open as she starts imagining ordinary things as if they're part of some mythological world, eventually convincing him enough that he sees the same (or at least his interpretation of that).

While the previews might make this look like the second coming of Narnia what with all of the fantastical characters in this imaginative world (which isn't entirely coincidental since both films come from Walden Media), such flights of fancy only make up a small part of the overall picture.

The rest is a live-action and special effects free trip down memory lane for adults who will fondly remember what it was like to engage in such highly imaginative outings. Younger viewers will also likely identify with the main characters, their troubles, and their attempts to deal with them.

The result is a fairly engaging, sometimes touching and -- at one unexpected point -- shocking film from director Gabor Csupo who works from Jeff Stockwell and David Paterson's adaptation of the latter's mother's earlier work. Those familiar with the original story will presumably know what's coming (having not read it, I can't attest to its presence in literary form), but those who don't are in store for what can best be described as a completely and utterly, emotionally devastating moment.

To keep the film's artistic integrity intact, I won't disclose what occurs (it is listed as a major spoiler in the content portion of the review), but it so completely blindsided me that it made me wonder if the film could survive such an emotional setback. By the time it does occur, there isn't much time left in the film, but the cast and crew do a decent job of keeping the development from appearing too manipulative.

While some may disagree, I found the film far more engaging and interesting in the live-action rather than imaginative mode. I suppose it probably worked better as a book since it allowed readers to create their own version of the near-mythological world, whereas here we don't really have that option. The bigger problem is that much of it isn't explained (about who's who, what's what, and what's at stake) and the alternating between real and imagined bits gives the film something of an uneven feel.

It's not a horrible and certainly not a fatal flaw, but I would have preferred that we either never saw what the kids were imagining (just their expressions of amusement, amazement, or horror would have sufficed) or that everything would have been fleshed out more, as occurred in "Narnia."

Such issues aside, the performances from Josh Hutcherson and especially Annasophia Robb are quite good, and they easily pull the viewer into their story and make them concerned about their plight. Supporting takes from the likes of Robert Patrick (always the T-1000 from "Terminator 2" to me), young Bailey Madison, and Zooey Deschanel are also good. That's even with the latter's moments as the school's music teacher getting a bit heavy-handed in terms of the songs she and the kids sing in class coming off as symbolically connected to what's occurring at those particular moments in the film.

Overall, and despite its flaws, I liked the film and what it was trying to express about kids and their unique and at times highly imaginative coping mechanisms. With a little less or a lot more of the titular land, this might have been a classic. As is stands, it feels like it's never sure whether to commit fully to its fantastical world or not. "Bridge to Terabithia" rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed January 26, 2007 / Posted February 16, 2007

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