After a year fraught with junky and derivative family moviesTim Allen's 2006 trilogy of shame ("Zoom
," "The Shaggy Dog
," "The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause
"), anyone?leave it to the recent "Happy Feet
" and now "Charlotte's Web" to turn things around. A lovely adaptation of the beloved children's novel by E.B. White, "Charlotte's Web" stays true to the spirit of the book while delving into subject matter about the value of friendship and the process of life and death that will be beneficial and informative to younger audience members. No matter the age, viewers won't leave the theater tapping their feetmany will still be wringing out their tear ductsbut a valuable family picture that gives children something to take away from the experience and think about is worth more than a hundred Tim Allen clunkers.
When a runt is born amongst a litter of baby piglets, he is saved from the chopping block by an adamant, animal-loving young girl named Fern (Dakota Fanning), who promises her father that she will feed and take care of him if his life is spared. Fern names the pig Wilbur (voiced by Dominic Scott Kay), and the two of them become inseparable until he gets to be too much work and is relocated to a neighbor's barn across the street. Lonely when Fern is not around and not getting a lot of company out of the other farm animals, Wilbur's life is forever changed through his unlikely friendship with a spider named Charlotte A. Cavatica (voiced by Julia Roberts). A lover of words, Charlotte tells Wilbur the cold, hard truth about what happens to pigs before their first birthday and vows to figure out a way to save him from becoming bacon. What happens next inspires the entire town they live in and puts Wilbur in the spotlight. With Charlotte aging and her health quickly deteriorating, however, it is up to her to teach Wilbur a very important lesson about life and death that he will need to learn as he grows up.
Crafted with care and gentility by director Gary Winick (2004's "13 Going on 30
"), the live-action "Charlotte's Web" (following a 1973 animated musical version) is a respectful retelling that doesn't sugarcoat its tough but necessary thematic elements. The film is attractively mounted (with Australia standing in for Maine) and does a nice job of portraying the passing of the four seasons. Composer Danny Elfman (2005's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
") does not disappoint with his magical music score, most beautifully brought to life in the scenes where Charlotte works on weaving her web. And, with the exception of a few too many talking-animal characters that sometimes cause a feeling of crowdedness, Susannah Grant's (2005's "In Her Shoes
") and Karey Kirkpatrick's (2006's "Over the Hedge
") screenplay is faithful in the most heartfelt of ways. The one-liners and brief crude humor could have afforded to hit the cutting-room floor, as could the superfluous exploits of two black crows (voiced by Thomas Haden Church and Andre Benjamin) trying to outwit an inanimate scarecrow, but otherwise the broad pandering is held back in favor of clean, mature storytelling and warm character-building moments.
The centerpiece of "Charlotte's Web"the very reason, indeed, that it has become such an adored childhood ritual to readis the meaningful relationship between Wilbur and Charlotte. The film makes you think twice about munching on pork and swatting that pesky spider crawling in your house, yes, but it does so without preaching and through the affectionate development of these two iconic characters. At first thought to be stunt casting, Julia Roberts (2004's "Ocean's Twelve
") is actually a magnificent choice to star as the voice of Charlotte. Roberts' vocal inflections are consistently on target in the way she depicts Charlotte as candidly honest, patient, understanding, helpful, loving, and wise about life. Whether or whether not they physically worked together, 10-year-old Dominic Scott Kay (2006's "The Wild
") is an ideal choice to play the innocent young Wilbur, and he and Roberts create a three-dimensional chemistry that makes their final moments as Wilbur and Charlotte so bittersweet and genuinely touching.
Of lesser impact is the other key relationship in the moviethat between Wilbur and Fern. Fern is a minor character in the novel, but with someone of the caliber of Dakota Fanning (2005's "Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story
") portraying the role, it wouldn't have hurt to expand the part. Fern's love for Wilbur endures from beginning to end, but it is said, quite rightly, that it is a childhood phase that will leave her as she matures. Fanning is finewhen has this young acting dynamo ever been less than that?but this is a thankless role that anyone could have played. The movie is missing that one crucial last scene between Fern and Wilbur that would have satisfyingly wrapped up their plot thread. As is, Fanning simply exits the proceedings without warning in the third act, never to be seen again. To the filmmakers' credit, they do think to include a moment between Fern and a male classmate on a ferris wheel at the county fair that does hint at the changes 12-year-old Fern is about to experience. Once a pubescent teenager, how much room will be left in Fern's life for a little runt of a pig?
The beautiful thing about every incarnation of "Charlotte's Web" is its thoughtful handling of the subject of death. Instead of treating it as something to fear or exploiting it for selfishly manipulative purposes, author E.B. Whiteand now director Gary Winickuse Charlotte's passing and Wilbur's coming-to-terms as a matter-of-fact springboard for reader and audience discussions. There is no talking down to anyone, nor is there a particular age group that the story targets; virtually everyone will be able to appreciate what the film has to offer. "We're born, we live a little while, and then we die," Charlotte explains to Wilbur late in the picture, and that line, so simple and yet so powerful, is a perfect example of how this story could be used as a wonderful learning tool for children dealing with loss. "Charlotte's Web" is easily one of the most enchanting and affecting family films of the year.