This sounds sort of odd, but I don't know if the memories I have of this book are from actually reading it as a kid or merely hearing about it from other kids who read it. Either way, I was familiar with the story and had a general positive feeling toward the book when I heard it was being made into a movie, and I meant to see it when it was out in theaters earlier this year. There was no press screening here, though, and every time I thought I'd make time to see the movie, something more important seemed to come up.
Maybe subconsciously I wasn't all that excited about the movie, so I'm glad that Disney sent me the DVD and thus gave me no excuse not to watch it. Marketed incorrectly as a Chronicles of Narnia-style fantasy film, this is a wonderful and occasionally difficult movie about the hard, grown-up truths that kids sometimes have to face before they're ready, as well as the simple joys of friendship and shared imagination. Josh Hutcherson (who was rather irritating in Zathura) is just passable as main character Jesse, but AnnaSophia Robb is excellent as Leslie, the bohemian girl who becomes his best friend. The decision to depict their titular imaginary world with CGI effects doesn't always pay off, but it does add a nicely bittersweet note to the heart-wrenching conclusion, after Leslie has died accidentally, and Jesse must confront the world (both real and imaginary) without her.
Some have complained that the death is too dark for a kids' movie, and that the way it's handled (off-screen, with little foreshadowing or warning, unless you've read the book) is dramatically unsatisfying. But I'd like to think that kids can handle movies in which bad things happen, especially since the ultimate message is about how to process and understand the senseless tragedies that all of us inevitably face. And that's the thing about Leslie's death - it's not portended with a Significant Cough like in some awful melodrama, nor is it built up suspensefully like in a thriller. It just happens, like these things do in life, and Jesse is left to pick up the pieces. That he is able to do so, and that the movie leaves us feeling like life has meaning and beauty even in the face of such horror, is the greatest testament to the story's power.