Books are strange things, in a way. We take ownership of them. No matter how popular and well-read a book is, I still feel that it's my own private experience, and when I find someone who had the same experience with the same book as I, it's like finding my best friend and soul mate in one.

Few books have ever engendered such a possessive feeling in me as Katherine Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia from 1977. I can say without a trace of hyperbole that there is almost no work of art in any medium that had such a profound impact on my development as a person as that book did when I first read it at the age of eight or nine. Here was a story of harsh reality colliding with idealism and fantasy; it was a heady brew for the tiny Tim, and while I can now go back with a critical eye and point out the book's shortcomings, I would have defended it to death in those long-ago days.

With that sort of baggage, I clearly was in no mood to cut the new film adaptation from Walden Media any slack at all. Especially after seeing the trailer, a grim affair that made the film look like a mash-up of Harry Potter and Narnia. Well, I'm glad to report that I was wrong, completely wrong. This is a true and brilliant condensation of the book, with just enough tweaks to make it its own thing, and the result is one of the better children's movies I've seen in the last couple of years, at least.

Bridge to Terabithia is a great children's movie in the only way that a film can be: it completely ignores the fact that it's for children. Here is a story that considers economic hardship, the nature of God and Hell, and the existential dread of one's future, and it treats on these subjects from the perspective of fifth graders. Unlike most Hollywood fare, it does not resent young people; rather, it treats them and their viewpoint with the utmost gravity.

A precis: young Jesse Aarons (Josh Hutcherson, who is brilliant, and whose career will hopefully go good places as he ages) lives a friendless life in the rural back of beyond, in an isolated home with his parents and four sisters; he is bullied and his only creative outlet is drawing. One day, Leslie Burke (AnnaSophia Robb, who is not quite as brilliant, but far better than to deserve the name AnnaSophia) starts up at Jesse's school, and the two form a tight friendship around the remote patch of woods they name Terabithia, their private enchanted kingdom.

I had never realised before, but Leslie basically serves the same function as the annoying pixie woman in a Zach Braff film: she inspires the buttoned-up (male) protagonist to experience the unfettered world, but herself has no arc. It is she who conceives of Terabithia and drags Jesse into it with her; it is through her eyes that the CGI beasties that so plague the ad campaign are brought to life. Meanwhile, Jesse gets to have the coming-of-age story.

Happily, there are a few moments that keep Leslie from drifting into full-on "The Shins will change your life," Natalie Portman territory. With a handful of lines and a couple scenes where Leslie confronts her own demons, the film makes it clear that she does in fact have her own inner life. There's one line near the end of the film that serves all by itself to make that she needed Jesse just as much as he needed her, and that in a different story he might have been the annoying pixie woman.

Frankly, it helps that there is not a trace of romantic angst to this version, not even as much as the book, and that is just as it should be.

Coming-of-age stories are hoary and overdone to say the least, but they are almost never done well. Bridge to Terabithia is done well, because it is mostly truthful: brutality and innocence lie side by side, which is of course the reality of childhood. I initially distrusted the fantasy scenes as being a sop to the ADD hordes of modern American youth (they are not in the book, precisely; at least not so literally), but I have changed my mind. The fantasy moments in the film are a relief from the grimness of the mise en scène, and as such function for the audience the same way that they do for the protagonists. This has the effect of making the realistic scenes all the more convincing in their petty viciousness and boredom.

All that said, it's not a flawless film, not by a long shot. Director Gábor Csupó is an animation veteran, mostly of the Rugrats family of productions, is making his live-action feature debut with this film, and it is obvious that he has little idea what he's doing. The difference between deliberate pacing and slow pacing is a razor's edge, especially in a film with the general plotlessness of this one, and he too often permits it to fall on the wrong side. Particularly at the end, which starts perfunctory and drags on for much too long. This ending was the chief moment of the book to me as a young person, and it was disappointing to see it fall flat, despite ostensibly being the story's moment of greatest emotional urgency. He sucks the air out of the strong screenplay (by Katherine Paterson's son David), compounding his pacing issues with frequent reliance on that most dangerous of all cinematic techniques: slow-motion. It can be used well - I've seen it with me own eyes! - but only by a genius, and Csupó is not a genius. As it is, his slow-mo fetish cuts into the film a hundred different ways, stopping the moment and energy seemingly every five minutes.

But there's only so much that can keep a good script down, especially given that it's, y'know, for the kids, and after the nightmarish cavalcade of dumb and dumber cartoons about sassy animals in the last twelve months, 2007 is already a much more promising year for family film than 2006.