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Fantasy fans should enjoy ‘Terabithia’

Though the special effects are a bit distracting, story is refreshingly sweet. By Christy Lemire
/ Source: The Associated Press

There’s something endearingly quaint about the images and ideas presented in “Bridge to Terabithia,” the notion that the most troubling force in a kid’s life could be the fear of a bully on the school bus, and that frolicking in the woods could provide the perfect escape.

The special effects in this coming-of-age fantasy tale, though, are extremely high-tech — yet feel distractingly literal and clunky. (They come from Weta Digital, the same company that designed the visuals for the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.) Killer birds and giant squirrels and menacing trees come out of nowhere and dart about in this live-action feature debut from Hungarian animation artist Gabor Csupo, who helped create “The Simpsons.”

It’s what you don’t see that’s usually more compelling. If you’re a fan of the genre (say, a fantasy geek, and that’s meant in the warmest of ways), all this probably will seem totally fine, however.

Effortless performances from the two young stars ultimately make this movie worthwhile, regardless of the age of the kids watching. Josh Hutcherson and AnnaSophia Robb star as Jess and Leslie, the outcasts of Katherine Paterson’s novel who form a friendship based on loneliness and a shared love of imagination. (Paterson’s son, David, for whom she wrote the story in 1978, co-wrote the script with Jeff Stockwell.)

Jess and Leslie merge his artistic skills with her talent for storytelling to create Terabithia, a magical land in the forest behind their homes where they rule as king and queen, and where they can exact their elaborate revenge on the mean kids who taunt them at school. He’s one of five children in a family where financial problems constantly loom; she’s the new kid in school, the wealthy only child of two successful, quirky writers.

If this were reality, Jess and Leslie would probably be sneaking cigarettes in their tree house and complaining about how much life sucks. Instead, they challenge each other to foot races down long, dirt roads and swing on a rope across a stream to their favorite hiding spot — and never once come close to kissing.

It’s refreshingly sweet, and the two young stars are an easy fit for each other. Hutcherson is a subtle and suitably stoic preteen, but Robb (“Because of Winn-Dixie,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”) is just radiant, with her bright eyes and confident style.

Robert Patrick co-stars as Jess’ gruff, hardworking dad, with the impossibly adorable Bailee Madison as his tag-along little sister, May Belle. And Zooey Deschanel, lovely as always, plays the kids’ supportive music teacher. (Her presence toward the end does feel like a bit of a plot contrivance, though.)

If you’ve never read the book, here’s a bit of advice: Bring Kleenex. What starts out idyllic and wholesome can be heartbreaking by the end. That’s all we’ll say. After all, some things are better left to the imagination.