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Bridge to Terabithia

Directed by Gabor Csupo

Written by Jeff Stockwell and David Paterson

Starring Josh Hutcherson, AnnaSophia Robb, Zooey Deschanel, Robert Patrick and Bailee Madison

Classification: PG

Rating: ***

Bringing a "beloved children's novel" to the big screen may sound like a winning proposition but there are inherent risks. One misstep in the adaptation process - a crucial character dropped, events too compressed, dark humour brightened to a squeaky clean tee-hee - and millions of loyal readers and their parents may show their disapproval by skipping the family matinee.

The trailer for Bridge to Terabithia, the new adaptation of Katherine Paterson's popular 1978 novel, strongly suggests that a story of two adventurous young people unfolds in a fantasy kingdom filled with magical critters. Although we all know trailers are usually misleading, this particular one has some fans concerned that the movie has transformed Paterson's Newbery Medal-winning book, which mostly takes place in the real world, into some kind of Narnia rip-off. As it turns out, Bridge to Terabithia is not only faithful to the novel but also stands to become a beloved family movie.

Bridge to Terabithia marks the live-action feature directing debut of Hungarian-born Gabor Csupo, the first animator of The Simpsons and co-founder in 1982 of Klasky Csupo, the animation powerhouse responsible for The Rugrats TV series and movies and other popular family entertainments. Csupo and his inventive visual imagination, in collaboration with the award-winning effects team of Weta Digital Ltd. ( The Lord of The Rings), do an incredible job of animating Terabithia - a place that exists only in the imaginations of the central characters. But trees that turn into giant trolls and hairy vultures never distract from Paterson's memorable and moving story about the importance of friendship and the power of imagination.

Jess, played with great sensitivity by Josh Hutcherson ( The Polar Express, Zathura), is the only son of a small-town family struggling to make ends meet. An outsider with a gift for drawing who is teased for his hand-me-down clothes, Jess gradually becomes friends with the new kid in his class, Leslie (AnnaSophia Robb), a free spirit who just moved in next door with her writer parents. In the schoolyard, the friends are subjected to bullying, but back home they begin fixing up an abandoned tree house in the nearby woods and pretend they are the brave protectors of Terabithia.

The magical land reflects their lives and is also a place to work things out. When Jess misplaces his father's keys and finds out his youngest sister May Belle (scene-stealing Bailee Madison) gave them to Leslie, retrieving them from Terabithia becomes a dangerous quest.

Csupo has managed to capture that elusive quality of a child's imaginative play - the total immersion in the world you've created, yet the constant awareness that everything is just a game. The wonderful performances of Hutcherson and Robb help adult viewers return to that mindset.

The story takes a dramatic, surprising (if you don't know the book) turn when Jess gets a call from Ms. Edmunds (Zooey Deschanel), his favourite teacher, who offers to take him to the city to visit the museum for the first time. While a whole new world is opening up for this artistic kid, a tragedy has happened back home. The rest of the film reveals how the lessons of Terabithia help Jess cope - and it might be good to have a hanky handy to get through this final stretch of the film. Bridge to Terabithia is both a cathartic and a creative family entertainment.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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