First off, Disney should fire their marketing department. Every single last one of 'em. There is simply no excuse for the brazen attempt to position Terabithia as some modern-day version of The Chronicles of Narnia. That's not what the book is, and that's not what this film is. Were it a Sci Fi Channel movie, then sure. I could see them butchering it in that way. But that's not what we have here. Amazingly, what Terabithia is is that rare example of a film that stays surprisingly close to the source material.
While there are definite fantasy elements at play here, that's not what the movie is about. Terabithia is a make-believe reality conjured by two social misfits--played by Josh Hutcherson and AnnaSophia Robb--as an escape from various unpleasantries of their daily lives. The glimpses of the fantasy land of Terabithia are occasional and fleeting, showing up front and center only when the protagonists put their minds to work. Both adolescent actors are genera veterans, with Hutcherson playing the older brother in the underrated Zathura and Robb playing Violet Beauregarde in the Tim Burton Willy Wonka remake. Robert Patrick's also on hand as Hutcherson's hard-working but emotionally distant father (and if you have to ask Patrick's genre credentials, I pity you) and Zooey Deschanel makes up for her participation in the wretched Hitchhiker's Guide flick with a more nuanced turn here as a music teacher who hasn't had the idealism snuffed out of her yet. All in all, the performances of the main characters are quite strong but I've gradually come to the conclusion that Robb was miscast in her role. Robb, you see, is so cute and radiating charisma that its well-nigh impossible to believe she really has so much trouble making friends. It's a performance that recalls the scene-stealing of a young Natalie Portman in the obscure Beautiful Girls--a comparison which bodes well for the young Miss Robb's future career.
What surprised me more than anything was how unrelentingly sad the film was, at least through the second half of the movie. Director Gabor Csupo almost blows the deal early on with an unrelenting parade of ham-fisted cruelty and class struggle, his depiction of which is laid on so thick it becomes laughable. Shortly after Robb's character arrives, though, Csupo seems to gain confidence and the film smooths out considerably, the character interactions settling down to a far more plausible and authentic level. The change is so dramatic I'm left wondering if Csupo was struggling to show Hutcherson's imagination at work, how he perceived events as opposed to the actuality of them. But if this was the director's intent, the approach stumbles badly. Beyond a few interludes of joyful friendship, there's a melancholy undercurrent to this one, something that's very much unexpected in a "children's film." If you've read the book, you know the Big Thing that happens near the end. Yeah, that does indeed make it into the movie--hard to believe as that may be. Even if you know what's coming, you expect the filmmakers to dodge the bullet at the last moment, or failing that, to tack on a happy ending by coopting the "anything is possible" fantasy of Terabithia. To their credit, the filmmakers don't shy away from any of it, which gives this mere children's film a very mature presence, indeed.
For the record, both of my daughters--aged 8 and 6--loved it. Loved it despite the lack of non-stop fantasy adventure. Despite the unpleasant places the story takes them. Loved it despite the lack of non-stop slapstick humor which permeates most of the Disney Channel sitcoms they gravitate towards. Sure, they were troubled by the sad events, but not enough to diminish their enjoyment of the film overall. Does this mean my kids are made of sterner stuff that I thought, or that they've become desensitized by the popular media? Nope. I just think they have good taste, and look forward to enjoying progressively more sophisticated films with them in the future.