Though wrapped in fantasy, BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA's true strength lies in its real-world story.
Despite an advertising campaign that suggested THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE LION, THE WITCH & THE WARDROBE (e.g., some teenagers discover a mystical, magical land, where they become heroes), this adaptation of Katherine Paterson's book BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA emerges as something along the lines a kinder, gentler American version of PAN'S LABYRINTH. It's about two junior high school kids who don't quite fit in; to escape the travails of the schoolyard (including an eighth grade girl who charges younger kids a dollar to get into the rest room), they find an uninhabited area of the nearby woods, where they imagine a magical kingdom called Terabithia. This escape from the pressures of real life leads not only to friendship and fun but also to a wiser understanding of the real world.
The fantasy excursions are relatively minimal, which is a good thing, because the computer-generated special effects (which bring to life walking trees and turn squirrels into the fantasy equivalent of vicious attack dogs) are one of the film's weakest elements. The movie is on surer footing when the fantastic is left to the imagination or suggested through shadows and sounds.
In any case, the true strength of BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA lies in its real world story, which perfectly captures the youngsters' lives, both at home and at school, without the usual Hollywood glurge or sentimental paeans to the joys of family. Instead, the story is grounded in a convincing sense of everyday life that makes the plight of the two leads (ably performed by Josh Hutcherson and AnnaSophia Robb) endearing to adults as well as children. Without the cornball fantasy sheen, the drama is amazingly poignant, and the tragic elements of the story hit with a firm, emotional wallop.
Fortunately, the script pulls this off without feeling like mechanical audience manipulation. The sense of loss and mourning is beautifully captured, and the lessons learned (about learning to face harsh reality without losing sight of beautiful dreams) are learned without trivializing the tragedy (unlike, say, a dumb Tom Cruise movie like TOP GUN, where the buddy has to die so our guy can learn himself some maturity - in effect, reducing the dead friend to a convenient sacrifice for the greater good, which is helping the star prove he's a real man, not just a hot-shot flyboy).
Along the way, BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA does a nice job of giving all the characters a fair hearing; even the ones who seem initially unsympathetic turn out to be human beings, not straw men. The film’s fantasy elements work best in this regard, on two occasions depicting “monsters” that turn out to be none too sinister when are revealed to be stand-ins for real-world characters: that which seems too threatening to face in real life is re-imagined in Terabithia, but then the sinister façade is stripped away, revealing friend instead of foe.
As a director Gabor Csupo handles it all very nicely. He doesn't always make BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA as rich and wonderful and whimsical as he intends (a couple of music montages feel like an obvious sop to the target teen audience), and the fantasy scenes (especially a happy ending bordering on trite) do not resonate with the mythic power of those in PAN'S LABYRINTH, but this is as moving a coming of age story as one could want. It's an old cliché, but this really is not a kiddie flick but a film for the whole family.