Charlotte’s Web

| December 18, 2006

This is high praise, as anyone who has attended a film with a toddler knows. Director Gary Winick offers a sincere and heartfelt live-action adaptation of E.B. White’s classic children’s story about a runt piglet saved by friendship. When the farmer plans to slaughter spring pig Wilbur, a spider named Charlotte tries to save him by spinning words within her web. The town marvels at each of Charlotte’s miracles, but the true magic of the film emanates from Wilbur’s relationship with Charlotte.
Wilbur is the smallest of eleven piglets born early one spring morning, and he is too weak to find room at one of his mother’s ten teats. The farmer prepares to put little Wilbur out of his misery when his daughter intervenes and pleads for the runt’s life. “If I was born too small, would you have killed me?” she asks with the innocence of a child. Dakota Fanning portrays the farmer’s daughter, Fern. Her teeth are crooked, and her hair is thrown back in a messy ponytail. She wears only overalls, much to her mother’s chagrin. Somehow Fanning has maintained her naturalness on screen, despite headlining numerous big-budget pictures. I keep waiting for her to go all Olsen twins, but so far she seems committed to being an actor.
Dominic Scott Kay provides Wilbur’s voice, and with his high-pitched, pure tone, he draws incredible sympathy. The pig is awfully cute, too, even when eating slop or jumping in mud. Wouldn’t want to smell him in person, but on screen, he’s kinda cuddly. Surrounded by adults (a.k.a. other farm animals) who treat him with condescension, Wilbur is a lonely child seeking friendship and simple joy.
Wilbur finally finds someone willing to talk with him in the form of Charlotte, a wise spider living in the doorway to the barn. Voiced by Julia Roberts, Charlotte is tender and articulate. But without Roberts’ characteristic smile, her persona lacks her usual energy. As for the rest of the cast, the question is, “who isn’t in this movie?” Oprah Winfrey, Robert Redford, John Cleese, and Sam Shepard as narrator all lend their considerable talent with understatement and grace. Steve Buscemi is the muggiest of the bunch, but since he’s playing a rat, his over-the-top antics are appropriate.
I read this novel repeatedly when I was eight, and among the things that I remember most is the message about growing up and the circle of life. Fern enters adolescence during the novel, and she gradually spends less time with Wilbur. Charlotte helps Wilbur escape early death, but she imparts the very adult message that everyone eventually dies. Winick has little time to explore Fern’s inner life, and honestly, I kind of missed this bittersweet aspect of the novel. But he doesn’t shy away from harder truths, like the fact that humans eat animals, children grow up, and friends die.
Screenwriter Susannah Grant is a chick flick alum, with credits including In Her Shoes and Erin Brockovich. Co-writer Karey Kirkpatrick frequently writes children’s films, including Over the Hedge. Aided by Danny Elfman’s lush instrumentals, Grant and Kirkpatrick strike the right balance between sincerity and cheese. With impressive contributions from visual effects artists, the film radiates life and color. Though the narrator describes the town as nothing special, audiences will relish the pastoral simplicity and beauty. Leave your cynicism at the door, and Charlotte’s Web will return you to the wonder of childhood.

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