- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 15, 2007

Fresh off the 2005 page-to-screen phenomenon “The Chronicles of Narnia,” Walt Disney Pictures and Walden Media have returned with a big-screen adaptation of Katherine Paterson’s treasured children’s book, “Bridge to Terabithia.” In the process of translating the 1978 Newbery Medal-winning story to film, they’ve revamped a few things in order to broaden the story’s appeal and place it in modern context.

Local fans of the book, for example, may miss the author’s references to the Redskins and downtown D.C. museums (Miss Paterson was, after all, a Washington-area resident). Other readers may note that paper dolls have morphed into Barbies; chores no longer include milking cows; and characters that, in print, lived only in the protagonists’ minds now spring to life, thanks to lush special effects from “Lord of the Rings” studio Weta Digital.

Despite these tweaks, however, the movie succeeds in preserving the tale’s graceful innocence and keeping its major themes — enduring friendship and boundless imagination — intact. Like last year’s “Charlotte’s Web,” the film embraces contemporary technology without destroying the subtlety of the original story, and this is likely due to the active involvement of David Paterson, the author’s son. An accomplished playwright and screenwriter, he co-wrote and produced the film with his mother’s full support. He’s joined by director Gabor Csupo and screenwriter Jeff Stockwell.

In a small rural town no longer presumed to be the outskirts of Washington, Jess Aarons (Josh Hutcherson) slowly warms up to his new next door neighbor, Leslie Burke (AnnaSophia Robb). Though his family scrimps and hers is effectively “slumming it” out in the countryside (her parents are artists and decidedly well-to-do), the two youngsters find that they have much in common, including the ability to run fast, getting pushed around by bullies at school and healthy imaginations.

One afternoon, the duo discovers a rope swing in the forest behind their homes that leads them across a creek and into a fantasy world, which they name “Terabithia.” Born out of their own vivid daydreams, it becomes their kingdom and they its rulers. Here, they’ll both befriend amiable subjects and battle against evil forces (think “Narnia”-lite).

Terabithia is not only an escape from the children’s everyday frustrations and oppressors, but also helps them build strength to combat the things that bother them.

Ultimately, the depth of Jess’ friendship will be tested by a crush — on his hippie-chick music teacher, Miss Edmunds (Zooey Deschanel). When the educator invites her student on an unofficial field trip for two (no Leslie) one weekend, tragedy ensues.

While an important part of the plot, this final segment is one of the only portions of the book that could’ve used some serious updating; maybe it was OK in 1977, but no modern-day parent could fathom a school official taking a student out off-hours without parental permission, and unfortunately, this scene imbues Miss Edmunds’ character (and the film itself) with a creepy, pedophiliac overtone.

Beyond this misstep, “Terabithia” shows itself to be thriving and ready to win over a new crop of audiences. The two young leads give honest, understated performances, with the supporting cast backing them up nicely; the effects are visually interesting and not over-the-top; and the story itself is something nearly everyone can relate to. It’s maybe not quite what we would’ve dreamed it would look like, but it’s a lovely vision nonetheless.

***

TITLE:”Bridge to Terabithia”

RATING:PG (Mild peril and a really sad ending)

CREDITS:Directed by Gabor Csupo. Screenplay by Jeff Stockwell and David Paterson.

RUNNING TIME:96 minutes

WEB SITE:www.disney.com/terabithia

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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