Director : Gary Winick
Screenplay : Susannah Grant and Karey Kirkpatrick (based on the book by E.B. White)
MPAA Rating : G
Year of Release : 2006
Stars : Julia Roberts (Charlotte), Dakota Fanning (Fern), Steve Buscemi (Templeton), John Cleese (Samuel), Oprah Winfrey (Gussy), Cedric the Entertainer (Golly), Kathy Bates (Bitsy), Reba McEntire (Betsy), Robert Redford (Ike), Thomas Haden Church (Brooks), André Benjamin (Elwyn), Dominic Scott Kay (Wilbur), Sam Shepard (Narrator), Abraham Benrubi (Uncle), Kevin Anderson (Mr. Arable), Essie Davis (Mrs. Arable), Louis Corbett (Avery)
For those of us with a slightly arachnophobic bent, there will always be a central problem in any screen version of E.B. White’s beloved children’s classic Charlotte’s Web: one of the central characters is a spider. White got around this in the book by describing Charlotte in terms of gum drops and friendly waving legs. Garth Williams, the book’s illustrator, also got around this by depicting Charlotte mostly from a distance, and in the one instance when she gets an illustrated close-up, he gives her a dainty, humanlike head. The animators behind the 1973 film version took this one step further by giving Charlotte a face like a hand-drawn model in a 1925 issue of Cosmopolitan, complete with bright, wispy blue eyes and a sweet smile.
The producers of the new, live-action version of Charlotte’s Web don’t have that luxury because they made the decision to use real animals with CGI-enhancement. Hence, any depiction of the fully animated Charlotte must be within the same realm of photo-realism as the other animals. Hence, she has multiple eyes (although the two big, soulful ones in front hint toward anthropomorphism), is covered with hair, and has a vertical mouth that is softened just enough that you can’t quite describe it as a pair of pincers. Nevertheless, for those who get the creepy-crawlies just thinking about spiders, it will take a while to get used to seeing Charlotte as the benevolent, selfless heroine that White intended her to be, even with the soothing cadences of Julia Roberts’ voice.
Directed by Gary Winick (13 Going on 30), Charlotte’s Web is extremely faithful to White’s book, although it does expand and specify the cadre of farm animals to make room for more celebrity voice talent (which includes Robert Redford as an old horse, Oprah Winfrey and Cedric the Entertainer as married geese, and John Cleese as a daft sheep). It begins just as the book does, with young Fern (Dakota Fanning) saving a runty pig from her father’s axe. She names the pig Wilbur (voiced by child actor Dominic Scott Kay), and he goes to live on her Uncle Homer Zuckerman’s farm across the road.
There Wilbur meets the titular arachnid, who becomes both his friend and savior by spinning webs announcing Wilbur’s uniqueness to save him from the smokehouse. Screenwriters Susannah Grant and Karey Kirkpatrick wisely keep most of White’s best lines in tact, including the touching final assessment of Charlotte as both a great friend and a great writer, surely one of the most beautiful endings in American literature. At the farm, Wilbur also meets one of literature’s great scene stealers, the egocentric rat Templeton (voiced to perfection by Steve Buscemi), who is in every way Charlotte’s opposite. Where she is benevolent, he is selfish; where she is elegant, he is crude; where she is sensible, he is a glutton. Yet, you can’t help but like him, if only because he is so unapologetically himself.
At its heart, Charlotte’s Web has always been about friendship and death. How many children first understood what it meant to lose someone when they got to the end of Chapter 21? The good news is that the movie version doesn’t soft-pedal the book’s gentle, yet frank treatment of the inevitability of life’s end (the book’s first line is Fern asking “Where’s Papa going with that ax?”). Winnick even throws in a blackly comedic moment when he cuts directly from a shot of Wilbur to a shot of a sizzling pan of bacon.
This new version of Charlotte’s Web is not without its problems, however. There are highly unnecessary fart jokes (okay, we all know kids get a giggle out of passing gas, but does every child-centric movie have to cater to this whim?), and some of the expanded animal characters don’t have much point (the crows voiced by Thomas Hayden Church and André Benjamin are particularly distracting). The film’s biggest problem, though, is its reinvention of Wilbur.
Giving him a child’s voice and an aura of complete and unproblematic innocence clearly modeled on Chris Noonan’s wonderful fable Babe (1995) was a mistake. Not only does it rob Wilbur of his unique disposition, but it makes his salvation less meaningful. One of the things that was so poignant and humane about Wilbur was his propensity for worrying and carrying on--it was a crucial flaw that made him easy to identify with. As depicted in the movie, he’s a child-pig saint without much discernable personality. While this gives the film an undeniable “cute” quality, it comes at the expense of a deeper, richer meaning that will have to remain the province of White’s book.
Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick
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All images copyright ©2006 Paramount Pictures