Based on Katherine Paterson's young-adult novel and filmed in picturesque New Zealand, Bridge to Terabithia has lessons to impart about empathy and self-expression, but the tone is never heavy-handed. Jesse (sleepy-eyed Josh Hutcherson, Zathura), a fifth-grade loner, lives in the country with his parents and four sisters, including pesky May Belle (Bailee Madison), who adores him. His strict father (Robert Patrick, The Terminator 2) works in a hardware store. Money is tight and classmates make fun of his hand-me-downs, so Jesse finds refuge in running and drawing. Everything changes when two writers and their daughter Leslie (wide-eyed AnnaSophia Robb, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) move in next door.
Leslie is faster than all the boys, which initially puts Jesse off, but the two soon bond over their love of make-believe. In the forest, they find a creek that can only be crossed by rope. Leslie names the land on the other side Terabithia, where they imagine themselves rulers of the kingdom. Jesse and Leslie also connect with their unconventional music teacher, Ms. Edmonds (Zooey Deschanel, Elf), who encourages their creativity. Despite the tension at home, Jesse's personal life is finally coming together when the unthinkable happens. Will he revert to his anti-social ways or will he grow from the experience?
Though aimed at all ages, pre-school students may find Terebithia's creatures frightening. For grade-school kids and up, however, there's much to savor in this smartly written, sensitively acted film. -- Kathleen C. Fennessy