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Bridge To Terabithia

In the wake of Lord of the Rings, the major studios bought up fantasy novels left and right, hoping for lightning to strike twice. When Disney and Walden Media released Bridge To Terabithia earlier this year, audiences could be forgiven for lumping the film in with that clump, particularly if they weren't familiar with the Newberry Award-winning novel.

From the ad campaign, this movie looked like a fantasy extravaganza, a fact which Gabor Csupo notes in his commentary on the DVD. Overall, though, the fantasy elements are pretty thin, even though they're sumptuously brought to life by WETA, the same company that worked on the aforementioned Lord of the Rings trilogy. The fantastical creatures are just products of the two young leads' imaginations, as this movie really focuses on themes of friendship, family and going on in the face of tragedy.

Be warned of that other undertone. Two-thirds through, unexpected tragedy strikes, shot so effectively by Csupo's crew that even under commentary, the emotion hits like a hammer. In a featurette that covers the popularity and importance of Katherine Paterson's original novel, librarians and teachers discuss how they use it for fifth-graders, and really, Bridge To Terabithia probably isn't for kids younger than that.

That plot turn will be too unsettling, and the darker, more menacing creatures could be pretty scary. While not quite on Dementor level, younger children might not really catch that the adventures are all in Jesse (Josh Hutcherson) and Leslie (AnnaSophia Robb). Otherwise, the message of the film is powerful for kids, and well worth watching.

Two sets of commentary might have been overkill, but the one from Csupo, writer Jeff Stockwell and producer Hal Lieberman does confront criticisms of the film head on. They admit to mistakes and a few happy accidents. Even Csupo seems to be a bit befuddled by his being asked to direct because of his animation background (he did Rugrats, among others), then really pulling back on the fantasy sequences.

As must be on a disc like this, Disney includes a short featurette on the special effects and creature design. If you do have younger children, this might the way to ease them into it, by letting them see the steps from drawing to 3D modeling. However, like the film's theatrical trailer, it also raises expectations by focusing on a sequence that's basically the ending.

WETA did come up with some really cool designs, though, and that sequence bears a few moments in freeze-frame just to catch all the details. Csupo claims to have wanted something worthy of Terry Gilliam, and he got it.

Since Bridge To Terabithia comes from Disney, it also comes with a music video that must have gone heavily into rotation on the Disney channel and convinced my eight-year-old she really wanted to see it. (Disney could adapt Macbeth and somehow insert a poppy power song for some naļf actress to sing.)

Film star Robb performs "Keep Your Eyes Wide Open" in a thin but steady voice; it's more likely that we'll see much more acting rather than hear more singing. She does have the chops, but in the video also demonstrates the criticism Csupo and Stockwell both admit to - even for an adolescent, she seems too glamorous for the character she plays.

Again counter to advertising, the film really belongs more to Hutcherson, and he carries it well. Providing great support are Robert Patrick as his father ("The Terminator!" Stockwell cries) and Zooey Deschanel as an inspirational music teacher. Always solid, Patrick gets a chance to prove that surprisingly, he makes a great screen dad.

Csupo, too, makes a good live-action director. You might scoff at this concept, but Rugrats and The Wild Thornberrys often had surprising emotional depth, and that carries over live humans. He's just a really good storyteller, and we should look forward to his next effort.

So go ahead and put this one on the shelf. Just be careful of which kids take it down to watch it.

Buy Bridge to Terabithia (Widescreen Edition) at Amazon

Derek McCaw

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