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Movies | Fantasy-laced tragedy demands parental guidance

Issue: "Marathon man," Feb. 17, 2007

Those who have read the Newbery Award-winning children's novel Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson will have trouble recognizing it in previews for the film adaptation. Previews depict a Chronicles of Narnia spinoff replete with CGI fantasy animals, but audiences who show up to see that sort of film will be disappointed.

Bridge to Terabithia (PG for thematic elements) spends very little time in the fantasy world conceived by the two middle-school student characters in the film. Like Paterson's novel, the film is really a coming-of-age tragedy.

The story centers on Jesse Aarons (Josh Hutcherson), a sixth-grader from a poor family who finds his significance in running fast and drawing pictures. When the new girl in school, Leslie (AnnaSophia Robb), beats him in a footrace, he becomes despondent until he befriends her. Together they tromp into the woods to play imaginary games about a world called Terabithia where all their fears and enemies seem conquerable.

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Why would the movie's distributors hide the true meaning of the film? They say it's to preserve the surprise of the film's tragic third act, and they're demanding that critics not give away the ending. Fair enough. But the film's marketers must also know that the story's deep tragedy has prompted people to try to ban the novel from schools. Why? Outside of the tragic elements, the story portrays Jesse and Leslie as sinners who struggle with the doctrine of heaven. In one pointed scene they discuss what it takes to get to heaven. Neither answer meets the seminary standard.

Problems like that probably won't deter children, who tend to stay focused on narrative. Bridge to Terabithia doesn't give all the right answers, but the movie opens up a teaching moment for parents willing to put in the time.

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