This is somewhat the Disney version of Pan’s Labyrinth. Not that it the same story or anything, rather not, but they both mix reality and fantasy - in such a way I wonder. What are the fantasy elements about? Is it so that story writers have no idea about how to make a true fantasy anymore? Guessing on the popularity I think not. I think that when you are little real life is a little like this. The way a kid sees the reality is often a little between its own fantasy and the actual reality.
The real element in this movie switches between some classic school comedy/drama to the little problems the main boy has with his poor family. The fantasy side is the children self invented fantasy (?) land. The boy and the girl while to young to be romantic have something of a deeper friendship. Since this is a Disney product the style is much more polished for children and done very well to entertain an family audience.
Like in Pan’s Labyrinth however we meet the harder reality of life and we are introduced to death. While Pans labyrinth is generally more scary and tougher it has a happier way of portraying death and it all falls nice with the fantasy story.
The meeting with Death in this movie is short and brutal and changes the tune of the movie completely. It turns out to be quite a sad movie. This is quite unusual to see even in adult movies of this type (when he meet her or vise versa).
The boy also feels guilty about what is happening. Partly because he knows that if he had chosen otherwise it would have turned different. The father tries to comfort him out of these thoughts.
The boy star of this movie plays a little too lousy. Always the same look, almost no expression in his face. The girl on the other hand always plays plenty of expression, probably a little too much. Acting is still an important essence to create a good movie - but of course it can not always be easy with child-stars.
It reminds me a little of a episode of peanuts where one of the students get cancer and they explain that there is nobody’s fault. It just happens.
All in all I think both this and Pan are good movies. There are some nice touches for sure, although I am bit unsure what they actually try to say.