Few books are more beloved than E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web; it’s hard to imagine growing up without it. That’s perhaps why so many people consider it borderline sacrilege for anyone to attempt to mount a live action adaptation of this classic. Well it does me good to say that Gary Winick has done an admirable job in putting this movie together. It’s not perfect, but I ultimately didn’t mind because the movie is as heartwarming to watch as the book is to read.
The story’s the same: little farm girl Fern (Dakota Fanning) saves a baby pig that’s the runt of the litter from a birthday slaughter. She names him Wilbur and treats him like any little girl would treat a baby, by pushing him around in a stroller and singing him to sleep at night. But soon Wilbur gets too big for house living and at her parents’ insistence she takes Wilbur across the road to her Uncle’s barn to live with the other animals. The other barn animals are hesitant to make friends with Wilbur but he does find a companion in a spider named Charlotte. Eventually, Charlotte, Wilbur and the other animals, even the snidely rat Templeton, come together in common purpose to save Wilbur from the slaughter house.
Winick and screenwriters Susannah Grant and Karey Kirkpatrick go to great lengths to preserve the innocence of the story. They also don’t hold back when it comes to the final act, and presuming you know the book, you’ll understand when I say that there wasn’t a dry eye in the house during the final 15 minutes. The voice actors were all pretty good although a few of them were a little obvious (who else but Steve Buscemi could give voice to Templeton). Some bits of casting were funny, like having Horse Whisperer Robert Redford as Ike the Horse or Thomas Haden Church and Andre Benjamin as a pair of crows desperately seeking corn. The stand-out though is the dulcet tones of Julia Roberts coming out from behind the tweezers of Charlotte; Roberts’ doesn’t draw attention to herself and is perfectly believable as Wilbur’s friend and savior.
On the downside, the live action approach doesn’t do much for the believability factor, not that it’ll matter to the kids out there. The thing of it is that they couldn’t dedicate themselves fully to the use of real animals anyway as both Charlotte and Templeton are CG creations, which gives them a little bit more of an animated flare that you don’t see in the other animals. There’s also a bit of post-90s sermonizing that could have best been left out of the movie as several characters remark about the miraculous nature of the words in the spider’s web. Sure it can save the fate of one pig, but does it really have a greater impact to the world at large as implied?
Such thoughts come after the credits role and after you’ve blown your nose and tried to hide the fact that you were on the verge of tears over the fate of a single, fictional spider. Say what you want about that, but the fact of the matter is that I think that this Web will become the same kind of family classic on the movie shelf as the book that originated it is on the bookshelf.