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Charlotte's Web (2006) Print E-mail
Friday, 15 December 2006
E.B. White’s beloved children’s book “Charlotte’s Web” has remained in print since first published more than 50 years ago. It closed with a wise observation: "She was in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both." He turned down many bids to film it, but did authorize an animated version, released in 1973. This live action version was adapted by Earl Hamner, Jr., and directed by Gary Winick from a screenplay by Susannah Grant and Karey Kirkpatrick. Winick has mostly worked as producer and sometimes director on independent movies; he directed “13 Going on 30” and “Tadpole,” but he was an unknown quantity to me.

His handling of “Charlotte’s Web” is straightforward but imaginative, much like the book itself. This isn’t based on an idealized history of pre-medieval England, like “Lord of the Rings,” and it certainly isn’t a Christ allegory like “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” It’s just a simple story about animals, particularly an exuberant young pig, his unlikely friend, Charlotte the philosophical spider, and a little girl.

But it’s a touching, charming movie, likely to appeal as much to adults as to children. It’s probably not accidental that it has a lot of the flavor of the beloved “Babe;” not only is it about a pig and his barnyard friends, but it was also shot in Australia (though it’s primarily an American film). It’s blessed with a superb score by Danny Elfman, one of this versatile composer’s best, and is warmly shot by Seamus McGarvey.

Not only does it star the always-perfect Dakota Fanning, but has a very effective voice cast for the talking animals. Julia Roberts does Charlotte so well that it’s somewhat surprising she has done little or no animation voice work prior to this. Her Charlotte is warm, mature and amusing, everything the character needs and a bit more besides.

As the movie opens, farmer Arable (Kevin Anderson) shows his young daughter Fern (Fanning) that a mother sow just doesn’t have enough teats for her litter of piglets; one, a runt, will have to be killed. Not if Fern has anything to do with it, and she does. She adopts the little pig and names him Wilbur, but soon Wilbur is just too large to be a house pet. Fern takes Wilbur across the street to the farm of her uncle Homer Zuckerman (Gary Basaraba), whose barn, we’re told, “needed a pig, only no one knew it yet.”
After Fern abandons the initially distraught Wilbur—he batters through the barn pen fence but is brought back—he reluctantly settles in as a barn animal. Being always upbeat and friendly, Wilbur (voice of Dominic Scott Kay) introduces himself to the other residents, such as Samuel the sheep (John Cleese), who can’t stand the smell of wet wool, Gussy the goose (Oprah Winfrey), Golly the gander (Cedric the Entertainer), the cows Bitsy (Kathy Bates) and Betsy (Reba McEntire), and horse Ike (Robert Redford, of all people). There’s also Templeton the Rat (Steve Buscemi), a greedy, conniving rascal who, over the course of the movie, grudgingly reveals a softer side.

The animals are amused by Wilbur’s youth and enthusiasm; he greets each mention of a name with “that’s a GREAT name!,” and he begins to become a new way the animals have of relating to one another. But then there’s one more inhabitant of the barn: Charlotte (Roberts), a kind gray spider who spins her webs in the upper corners of the barn door. Babe is enchanted by the sweetly philosophical spider, but the movie doesn’t sugar-coat the idea that spiders eat other creatures to live. Ike is so aghast at the mere idea of a spider that he faints—the sight of a horse flopping heavily onto its side is pretty funny.

Of all the animals, only Charlotte is always animated (CGI), though Templeton may be—he does a lot of thing, like fling himself backward into Wilbur’s slop with glad cries, that real rats probably couldn’t be trained to do. Templeton is always believable as the character he is, animated or real. The movie is a showcase of nearly-perfect effects, all working to the single end of telling this story, and bringing these characters to life in the process.

Fern often visits, and Wilbur is very happy with his new friends—but they realize he’s a spring pig, and isn’t likely to be alive by Christmas. In fact, he’s probably going to be the Zuckermans’ Christmas dinner. This is more confusing than scary to Wilbur, who likes people—Fern is a sterling example of a good person—and can’t quite believe he’s going to be hauled off to that ominous smokehouse on a little hill nearby.

But of all the animals, only Charlotte tries to do something to help hapless little Wilbur. As White says, it’s unusual to meet a writer and a good friend, and Charlotte was both. With Templeton’s surly help—he brings her clippings from newspapers stashed in his amazing lair beneath the barn floor—she spells out SOME PIG in her web.

And suddenly the Zuckerman farm is famous. People from all around come to see the amazing miracle of Charlotte’s web, and Wilbur’s life is spared. For a while. Like all miracles, the fame of the web soon dies, and Charlotte has to think of another way to prevent Wilbur’s death. It involves a county fair, more help from Templeton, and more words in her web.

If you’ve read “Charlotte’s Web,” and it’s entirely possible you have, or have read it aloud to your kids (if you haven’t, do so), then you know the miracles are not over. But also that the story bravely confronts the major truth of life: that it comes to an end. The movie presents this splendidly; it really is a case of “there wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” and that’s a good thing. For another aspect of life is the ability to absorb sorrow and move on, always remembering those lost along the way.

There’s an absolutely stunning sequence of Charlotte weaving her web with Elfman’s wonderful score set to her motions and grace. This little ballet is a highlight of a movie that’s pretty much a highlight itself. There’s another scene of a car driving along under green trees which change to the beautiful colors of autumn as the car passes. This is an example of effects used with imagination and taste, a shot that’s there solely because it is beautiful.

The live action cast, except for Dakota Fanning and a somewhat unexpected Beau Bridges, is competent but not memorable. The voice cast is terrific, with lots of what sound like improvised, throwaway lines coming from the corners of the screen. In addition to those in the barn, there is a couple of funny crows (Thomas Haden Church and André Benjaimin) hanging around, terrified of that guy in the cornfield who might, just MIGHT, move. Buscemi, another actor who never seems to make a misstep, is everything Templeton should be. Redford clearly is enjoying himself as the worried horse, but it’s not a large role.

The winner among the voice cast is Julia Roberts. Whatever you think of her, you’re likely to enjoy her work here. Charlotte is the wisest of the animals, and the one most in tune to the world around her, which is what has made her a philosopher. Her efforts to save Wilbur are utterly selfless—what can a pig do for a spider?—and as a result, she’s a treasure for Wilbur.

“Charlotte’s Web” is an ideal holiday movie, beautiful to look at, imaginatively made. This is one of those holidays where there aren’t too many films for the whole family, which makes “Charlotte’s Web” even more welcome. It would be a good moviegoing choice for those lost-seeming days between Christmas and New Years.

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