Live-action 'Charlotte's Web' respects--and almost lives up to--a 'terrific' book
The last "Charlotte's Web" on film was the animated 1973 Hanna-Barbera feature. The new, live-action version was shot in Australia (doubling for White's beloved Maine), using 47 different pigs to play the role of Wilbur. It stars Dakota Fanning as Fern, the girl with the pig.
Voiced by Dominic Scott Kay, Wilbur is a spring pig. The other animals in Uncle Homer's barn know what that means: He is unlikely to make it past the winter, since a pig means pork to a farmer. Wilbur is fortunate, however, to have two female saviors in his corner. One is a human, Fern. The other is a spider, Charlotte, who engages in the sweetest public-relations campaign ever conducted on behalf of a swine.
With one exception, the voice work is very sharp. Alongside human actors Fanning, Kevin Anderson (Fern's farmer dad), Essie Davis (mom) and Beau Bridges (as the kindly, animal-friendly doctor), the animals run the show. There's Templeton the rat, spoken by Steve Buscemi, who manages lovely, self-satisfied flourishes with lines such as: "A rat's gotta ask himself: What's in it for the rat?" John Cleese tut-tuts with alacrity as the leader of the sheep; Oprah Winfrey and Cedric the Entertainer trade banter as goose and gander, respectively; Kathy Bates and Reba McEntire trade drawls as a pair of gossipy cows; and, sounding somewhat tentative, Robert Redford provides the voice of Ike, the horse.
Now, about the spider. Julia Roberts voices Charlotte in a way that suggests ... not much, I'm afraid. She may be a genuine movie star and can be a good actress, but her voice--and what she does with it--never has been one of her strengths. In both "Ant Bully" and "Charlotte's Web" her animation characterizations have lacked shading and variety and rhythmic change-ups.
The close-ups of the computer-animated Charlotte are also a problem: The animators have given her eyes as big and consciously adorable as those of the cutest space alien. (The book's Garth Williams illustrations never depicted Charlotte at close range.) It's too bad, because White's cherished character deserves to be treated with as much class and distinction as can be mustered.
Happily most of "Charlotte's Web" is better than that. Director Gary Winick keeps the film's modesty of scale and generosity of spirit in mind throughout. The story has a pull like few others, and Sam Shepard's narration keeps everything easy and unpretentious, in sync with White's prose. Even with the addition of Thomas Haden Church and Andre Benjamin voicing a pair of scavenging crows, the vibe never gets too brash or "Over the Hedge"-y, which is a relief, since co-writer Karey Kirkpatrick was one of the creators of "Over the Hedge."
White considered Thoreau's "Walden" an indispensable book. "I keep it about me in much the same way one carries a handkerchief--for relief in moments of defluxion or despair," he wrote. Millions, of course, feel the same way about "Charlotte's Web." This story never was a story for children alone. But preteen moviegoers and their overseers, just now recovering from the emotional ravaging supplied by "Happy Feet," should find the film version a comfort.