Practical Magic: The two young outcasts of Bridge to Terabithia explore their fantasy world.

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Wonder, inspiration, friendships forged, and lessons learned—in a children’s movie, these positive elements are tough to project without ruining a parent’s lunch. The now-tired approach that Disney and its imitators have taken, of course, is to fill an otherwise syrupy script with rapid-fire pop-culture references that only grown-ups will understand. Wisecracking animals have been popular, too. Really, how else to grab the tykes and entertain the adults if it doesn’t involve Robin Williams and a couple of stealthily racy jokes?

Well, see 2005’s excellent Zathura. (No one else did.) And Bridge to Terabithia, a nonmangled interpretation of Katherine Paterson’s 1978 tween novel. Both movies are smart, imaginative, thoughtful, and fun; instead of throwing in a barrage of jokes aimed toward different demographics, Zathura and Terabithia simply ace their “whoa, cool!” factor in a way that makes the more mature audience members feel like kids again.

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The two even share a star. Here Josh Hutcherson, the big brother in Zathura, plays Jess, a fifth-grader from a large working-class family who’s good at running and drawing, on the quiet side, and officially stamped an outsider when a new classmate named Leslie (AnnaSophia Robb) beats him in a race. Jess retreats into his art, as well as the music class taught by Ms. Edmonds (Zooey Deschanel), a young, pretty, free-thinking type who teaches the group songs such as Steve Earle’s “Someday.” (“I wanna know what’s over that rainbow/I’m gonna get out of here someday,” Jess sings, smiling for once, as if the song were written just for him.) Leslie, who just moved into the rural area, proves to be an outcast herself, getting dirty looks when the teacher singles out her well-written essay and laughed at when she says her New Agenish parents don’t own a television. The misfits soon become close, though, and find a lonely patch of woods that’s a ripe setting for a fantasy world they call Terabithia.

The friends’ escapist realm, in which they envision “hairy vultures,” giant trolls, and dragonfly soldiers, is integral to the story. Accessible only by a rope that swings over a creek, the area lets the kids get to know each other and indulge their creative talents apart from bullying eyes and family problems, and it also figures into the story’s bittersweet ending. (Be forewarned: There’s no sugarcoat on the book’s plot.) First-time feature director Gabor Csupo doesn’t use the imagination-borne Terabithia as an excuse to drown the film in CG. Instead, there are flashes of fancy throughout: bubbles coming out of Leslie’s mouth as Jess listens to her story about scuba diving, a massive tree briefly morphing into a monster, the handmade bridge of the title becoming gilded when Jess introduces his little sister, May Belle (an adorable Bailee Madison), to his secret place.

The script—by Jeff Stockwell and David Paterson, Katherine Paterson’s son—also mostly delivers the book’s messages with a light touch. (The exception is Jess’ tough dad, Jack [Robert Patrick], who frequently admonishes him to “get his head out of the clouds and do as I say.”) The power of friendship is an obvious theme here, but the more exciting one is the time a kid’s world starts to open up: All Jess had known is being mocked by other students, watching his parents struggle to pay bills, and being overshadowed by his four sisters. It’s heartwarming to see Leslie bring out Jess’ sense of playfulness and creativity. And it’s thrilling to hear Ms. Edmonds (the kind of teacher every student should be lucky to encounter even once) speculate, as she and Jess are looking at a painting, whether the artist started drawing in notebooks like Jess: “Da Vinci did,” she casually adds.

Hutcherson, as the contemplative Jess, perfects the brood of a future singer-songwriter; he also can be subtle, as his character hesitantly lets himself believe in and have fun with Leslie’s games. And Robb, with a golden bob and wide eyes, is a strong, joyful presence, her prettiness and command of the screen a result not of Hollywood’s usual ­aww-­how-cuteness, but from her capture of the character’s sparkle. Yes, there is a scene or two whose cries of “Wonder! Wonder!” are a bit too loud, but the script nicely balances those with humor that’s organic instead of impossibly clever. It’s one of Jess’ realizations, after all: “What’s so great about being serious all the time, anyway?”