Fifth grader Jesse Aaron's hopes of becoming the fastest runner in his class are dashed when new girl Leslie Burke outruns everybody, including him. However they're soon friends and create an imaginary world called Terabithia, filled with fantastic creatures.
In the heartwarming-family-film department, this adventure of friendship and life lessons is imaginative and engaging. Of course, it presents children with the radical concept of playing outdoors. And fortunate indeed are those who can escape their cares by running off into the woods where a rope swing, a tree-house and a couple of marauding squirrels are everything one could want.
Although little known in the UK, the book — written by Katherine Paterson in 1977 to help her young son cope with a traumatic loss — is much loved in America. (It has long been jealously guarded, hence the involvement of that very son, David Paterson, as the draft screenwriter and a credited producer.) The tongue-twisting title was an homage to C. S. Lewis’ Narnia (where there is an isle called Terebinthia) and its chronicles, which the children in the book read as guides for ruling their own realm, Terabithia.
Courtesy of Weta Digital and lovely New Zealand locations (is there any part of Kiwiland not crawling with fantasy film units?), Terabithia is an inviting, exciting retreat. The apparitions of creatures there — particularly a magical battle with an army of golden dragonfly warriors — are nicely done. But the story’s strength is in its more prosaic, everyday encounters — with thick boys and nasty girls who gang up on the ‘outsider’ in the loo — and how the heroes translate their imaginary exploits practically to the schoolground. It’s a great pleasure to see Jesse and Leslie learning to use their heads to hand richly deserved comeuppances to the mean kids and to negotiate life without packing sharp objects. A sudden tragic turn is all the more moving for its grounding in reality, its aftermath inspiring because of the ‘bridge’ literally made between imagination and action, head and heart.
Director Gabor Csupo’s Emmy-winning artistry on The Simpsons and Rugrats is a big asset, since he puts a premium on fun and feeling without condescension or corn. The youngsters are outstanding: Josh Hutcherson expresses an impressive emotional range, while AnnaSophia Robb, so awesomely annoying as Violet in Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, is a pretty, natural Leslie and could mature into a long-term star. Sweets and hankies all round.
A thoroughly pleasing family film with fine performances and honest, affecting real situations mixed with joyful adventure.