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MOVIE REVIEW

A bridge to the secret life of imagination

AnnaSophia Robb and Josh Hutcherson in "Bridge to Terabithia," an adaptation of Katherine Paterson's much-loved novel. (WALDEN MEDIA VIA ASSSOCIATED PRESS)

Perversely, fans of Katherine Paterson's 1977 young adult novel "Bridge to Terabithia " -- and they're legion -- will be cheered by the news that the Very Sad Thing that happens three-fourths of the way into the book also happens in the movie, no matter how happy and peppy the trailers appear.

Conversely, parents and children wandering cold into this latest Walden Media adaptation of a summer reading list classic are going to be smacked upside the head by the Very Sad Thing, and kids might want to be prepared to comfort mom and dad. Seriously: As I came out of the screening, I overheard a father saying "I'm so bummed out about [the Very Sad Thing]. It ruined the movie for me."

Well, that's what happens when Hollywood coddles a generation: You can't handle the tough stuff when it turns up (again, I'm talking about the parents here). "Bridge to Terabithia" is an ungainly, sometimes off-putting fusion of rural tweenerhood and computer-generated fantasy, but at its quiet best it honors the secret life of imagination and the secret lives of kids, and it knows that children understand the world sometimes plays unfair. It's like an After-School Special version of "Pan's Labyrinth ," and I actually mean that as a compliment.

"Bridge to Terabithia" also shows the young actress AnnaSophia Robb on the verge of becoming a star: The camera loves her, and her unforced, goodhearted kid-ness feels like an antidote to all the hardened movie bratz out there. She plays Leslie Burke, the new kid in a rural school district and neighbor to classmate Jess (Josh Hutcherson ). Jess comes from a struggling farm family; he's the only boy in a warren of girls, and his gift for drawing doesn't play well with his thin-lipped father (Robert Patrick ).

At school, the roost is ruled by bullies like Janice Avery (Lauren Clinton ), who can beat up any boy and who charges the girls to pee. Directed by "Rugrats " mastermind Gabor Csupo (making his live-action debut), "Bridge to Terabithia" is about how the unconquerable, eccentric Leslie shakes this little world up, befriending the mean kids and showing Jess that dreaming's nothing to be ashamed of.

Out in the woods, the two find an old treehouse and refashion it into a mythical land called Terabithia, complete with an evil overlord and giants and minions (the squirrels-on-steroids look a bit like the R.O.U.S. from "The Princess Bride "). From the top of the tree they can see endless snow-capped fantasy mountains -- Narnia, right next door! (That was a Walden movie, too; maybe they got a deal on the real estate.)

The book, of course, allowed Terabithia to rise in a reader's own imagination. Modern movies insist computer-generated special effects are bigger and better when they're really just more obvious, and they cheat a kid of the quirks of his or her own vision. The CGI in the movie is acceptable but cut-rate -- a WalMart Middle Earth. Jess and Leslie deserve better.

Fortunately, "Bridge to Terabithia" spends most of its time in the real world of middle school and fractured families, and the two leads play their growing pains fairly. (Hutcherson is very good as the sad, observant Jess, but he should never be asked to smile -- it looks like they're poking him with sticks.) Zooey Deschanel floats through as the kind of music teacher we all had crushes on, and Bailee Madison is funny as Jess' little sister, a soulful pest.

Walden Media is owned (but not run) by the Christian billionaire Philip F. Anschutz , and through all the company's book adaptations -- "Holes," "Because of Winn-Dixie," "Hoot," "How to Eat Fried Worms" -- I've been waiting for the other sandal to drop. It drops in "Bridge to Terabithia," but with the same open-ended gentleness it does in the book. Very Sad Things prompt Very Big Questions, and this movie is smart enough to avoid Very Easy Answers.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movies/blog.

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