Katherine Paterson's classic children's novel Bridge to Terabithia finally makes its way to the screen, as the heir to Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. Though significantly more down to earth than those other literary adaptations, Bridge to Terabithia was primarily filmed in New Zealand and has fantastical special effects by Kiwi company WETA Digital. It's also the quietly Christian-friendly product of Walden Media, the producers behind Narnia.
Paterson's beloved novella was inspired by her son David's childhood experiences, and in turn, the grown David—now a screenwriter—lovingly adapts his mother's book for the screen. The story concerns grade-schooler Jess Aarons (Josh Hutcherson of Zathura), who befriends new neighbor Leslie Burke (Annasophia Robb of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). Leslie's bohemian, upper-class underpinnings and tomboy leanings make her an instant outcast with her peers, but she finds a soulmate in Jess, whose gift for drawing sets him apart and makes him emotionally hungry.
The story is largely that of Jess' search for approval: from Leslie, from his schoolboy crush (a hippie-ish music teacher played by Zooey Deschanel), from his tough-skinned father (Robert Patrick). First-time director Gabor Csupo shows a nice sensitivity for Jess' yearnings, as when the boy longingly observes his father's physical displays of affection toward Jess' sister (cute moppet Bailee Madison).
Bridge to Terabithia more obviously concerns the young outsiders who find each other and indulge a common fantasy life in the secluded woods near their homes (here's where the special effects come in). Dubbing their special place Terabithia, they work out their frustrations by conquering imaginary adversaries who bear streaking resemblances to school bullies. Paterson's lovely, sweet story locates unexpected emotional power by its conclusion; on the way, the film touches on theology and refuses to judge comforting escapism—arguably, two themes in one.
Csupo largely avoids the darker psychological connotations of such an escape, and who can blame him? After all, movies are the greatest escape. Then again, Paterson and Csupo happily acknowledge the often bittersweet but ultimately positive application of life-imitating art to process our problems. Most of all, Bridge to Terabithia is a well-acted, pure-hearted love story—of the love between friends, romantic love, and familial love. As such, it's just the ticket for tweens and their parents.
Disney's home-video release of Bridge to Terabithia comes in widescreen and fullscreen (a.k.a. "foolscreen") editions; the former is, of course, preferable. State-of-the-art picture and sound serve the film well, as do a host of extras. Surprisingly, Disney provides not one but two commentaries, the first with director Gabor Csupo, writer Jeff Stockwell, and producer Hal Lieberman, and the second with actors Josh Hutcherson and AnnaSophia Robb and producer Lauren Levine.
Two nicely produced featurettes focus on the film's literary origins and special-effects razzle-dazzle. "Behind the Book: The Themes of Bridge to Terabithia" (14:34) consults teachers, librarians, author Katherine Paterson, her son (and the film's co-screenwriter and co-producer) David Paterson, Robb, and Hutcherson, and "Digital Imagination: Bringing Terabithia to Life" (5:57) includes comments by the Patersons, exec producer Alex Schwartz, Levine, Csupo, Walden Media CEO Cary Granat, digital effects supervisor Dan Lemmon, Richard Taylor of WETA Workshop, art director for visual effects Michael Pangrazio, visual effects supervisor Matt Aiken, and lead animator David Clayton. With production art, models, incremental views of the effects, and behind-the-scenes production footage, the featurette packs a lot of information into six minutes, providing what may be a first-time mini-film school for kids.
Also for the kids is the syrupy music video for "Keep Your Mind Wide Open" (3:42), a ballad sung by aspiring pop-star Robb. Trailers for Underdog, Jungle Book: 40th Anniversary Platinum Edition, Meet the Robinsons, High School Musical: The Concert—Extreme Access Pass, instantly skippable using the handy "FastPlay" feature, launch at the outset. Accessible from the menu are additional "Sneak Peeks" for The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh: Friendship Edition, Hannah Montana, and Santa Clause 3.
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