Once again, don’t fear the trailer. Katherine Paterson’s Newbery-winning 1978 novel arrives at the screen inviolate, adapted with care by her son, David. But the movie’s marketers don’t understand it, so they emphasize its weakest parts: the CGI animation, the moments of running back and forth upon dirt roads, and the very last scene of the movie. It would be a shame if school-agers and tweens were falsely predisposed toward this remarkable family film, which is not at all about fairies in a twinkly enchanted forest or giant walking trees. The villain is not a goblin king but a perfectly ordinary eighth-grade bully (Lauren Clinton) named Janice, and she demands a dollar before she’ll let you through the bathroom door. The movie is about the friendship that begins when weird, new kid Leslie (Robb) offers a stick of gum to Jesse (Hutcherson) on the school bus. Jesse is poor, with four sisters and a father (Patrick), who’s turned a little bit mean from keeping a family. Neither Leslie nor Jesse fits in, but they fit together. Before long they’ve dreamed up a world of their own in the woods on the other side of a stream – Terabithia, a fantasy realm governed by the Dark Master who’s imprisoned all the warriors, or something something. That’s not the important part. Far more important are the emotions of the characters, who cannot escape to Terabithia forever and must live on the wrong side of their imaginations. Rugrats
producer Csupo, directing here for the first time, doesn’t condescend to his audience; the complications of grade-school life are extremely serious business to the people experiencing them. A subplot about a set of missing keys is invested with almost unbearable gravity, with one false move promising the family’s ruin – as if The Bicycle Thief
were transplanted. And every character is carefully humanized, even the hated teacher “Monster Mouth” Myers (Jen Wolfe), who turns out to be a grieving widow. Both the young actors are fine, but Hutcherson and Patrick have a particular chemistry as a father and son struggling to understand each other. When the special effects aren’t getting in the way, the kids’ imaginary scenes have a hazy, shimmering quality, as if the potential of a long afternoon with no homework could be measured in waves. These moments are far more memorable than any of the film’s creatures – there’s a big rabid squirrel thing that will scare the pants off littler ones, and some dragonfly warriors, a giant, and so on, and while they evince a great deal of effort from Weta Digital in their photorealism, they lack the fascinating otherworldliness of the fantasy-world figures the company made for Heavenly Creatures
. Fortunately, these moments of magical realism are few and reasonably contained within the narrative.