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Charlotte's Web   B-

Paramount Pictures / Walden Media

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: G
Director: Gary Winick
Writers: Susannah Grant, Karey Kirkpatrick (based on the book by E.B. White)
Cast: Julia Roberts, Dakota Fanning, Steve Buscemi, John Cleese, Oprah Winfrey, Cedric the Entertainer, Kathy Bates, Reba McEntire, Robert Redford, Thomas Haden Church, André Benjamin, Dominic Scott Kay.

Review by Rob Vaux

Quick, explain death to a six-year-old in terms he can understand and will accept without freaking out. A daunting prospect, no? I don't envy any parent who has to take it on. Most, I suspect, would duck the issue with well-meaning fibs that defer the harsh truth for another day. Some might fall back on cozy theological images of angels with harps or a heaven full of good friends, cute puppies, and cool toys. A few might approach things a bit more directly, sticking to matter-of-fact realities of the "grandpa won't be coming back" variety.

E.B. White wrote Charlotte's Web.

The totality of his achievement -- the perfect, delicate beauty with which he explains both the finality of death and the worthiness of life -- can be seen in the book's enduring legacy, in its permanent status on the best-seller list, and in the legions of teary-eyed kids who absorb its lessons before growing up and passing them on to their own children. In other words, it doesn't need anything that a glitzy A-list Hollywood production can provide. But with CGI technology now such a part of the landscape, and with Walden Media already notching several other children's classics under its belt (with varying degrees of success), such an adaptation was probably inevitable.

To be fair, it's perfectly serviceable in its own fast-food kind of way. It doesn't trifle unduly with the source, and its blend of lightness and solemnity strikes the requisite tone. It even pays homage to Garth Williams' illustrations -- found in most copies of the book -- which make for a lovely set of opening and closing titles. There's nothing wrong with it... and yet it never quite musters the imagination to fully justify itself. George Miller's Babe drew deep inspiration from Charlotte's Web, with less showbiz pretense and infinitely better results. The respectfulness of this production can't be denied, but beneath it lies an undue sense of entitlement: of big stars and big egos crashing a party where they're not entirely welcome.

Consider Dakota Fanning, who, as farmer's daughter Fern Arable, rescues a runty pig named Wilbur from her father's ax. Her performance adroitly captures the key tensions of that act -- the fact that Wilbur will likely starve if he's not put down, contrasted against Fern's pleading morality that even runts deserve a chance at life -- and yet, while technically polished, Fanning displays an assuredness and unflinching will that no other little girl in the universe possesses. There's no desperation in her tone when she addresses her father, no quavering application of fair and unfair to a harsh reality where such terms don't apply. She simply states that the pig will not die, using the same cold, detached certainty with which she might negotiate stock options.

Things remain much the same once Wilbur grows too big for the household and is moved across the road to Fern's Uncle Zuckerman. Ensconced in the barn and now without friends, Wilbur encounters a variety of indifferent but not entirely unkind animals, each voiced by another big-time celebrity. Robert Redford performs the duties for Ike the horse, while John Cleese takes the role of an alpha sheep and two Guernsey cows are played with country-gal drawls by Kathy Bates and Reba McEntire. They're fine one and all, but they do nothing that ten thousand other actors couldn't do equally well. Their presence owes more to the bottom line (and that big shiny row of names on the poster) than any insight or nuance they bring to the material. Of the lot, only Steve Buscemi feels indispensable as the irascible rat Templeton, who lives beneath Wilbur's slop trough and revels in his role as barnyard pariah.

Then there's Charlotte herself -- the wise gray spider who spins in the door and immediately senses Wilbur's innate worth. Though initially spared by Fern's intervention, the pig faces a similar fate at Zuckerman's farm, where year's end promises to see him slaughtered for Christmas dinner. In an act of altruism, Charlotte resolves to save him from that fate, and her ingenious plan forms the core of the book's enduring appeal. Director Gary Winick approaches the character with the reverence typical of the production, and a sharp piece of graphic design renders her warm and appealing without reducing her more unsettling arachnid qualities. Julia Roberts, providing Charlotte's voice, brings a nice maternal rapport to the role, working well with Dominic Scott Kay who performs the voice of Wilbur.

As a simple matter of professionalism, Winick has his other ducks in a row as well. He handles both the live action and CGI elements with a proper sense of balance, and the production delivers a storybook timelessness without divorcing the setting from a contemporary feel. Beneath it, Sam Shepard's gentle narration conjures the key themes with faintly evangelical overtones: a bit preachy at times, but never unwelcome. Charlotte's Web moves along with admirable speed, ensuring that children won't grow restless, and while the script makes a few depressing forays into poop-joke territory, it seems to understand that such material should not be allowed to linger. Considering the garbage usually passed off as family entertainment these days, the results emerge as a veritable colossus, with both the self-respect to say something worthwhile and the popular appeal to make sure the kids hear it. Winick covers the book's subtle points as well as the direct ones (it's no mistake that the barn's two outcasts -- Charlotte and Templeton -- ultimately do the most to save Wilbur's life), and while folks my age may prefer the 1973 Hanna-Barbera cartoon adaptation, this version is much more solidly constructed.

Yet none of it ever rises above the merely adequate. The glossy production values and big-name stars must have cost a pretty penny, but they bring little to the story that wasn't already there before. It has respectfulness and watchability, yes, but it also has multiplex expectations to think about, and thus ends up soft-pedaling some of the book's tougher moments -- not ignoring them so much as filing off their pricklier edges. And for all its worthwhile elements, it still implies that both the book and the audience should be grateful to it just for showing up. Material like this doesn't need such validation; it's earned that long ago and no big-time mogul can ever lift it higher. Simply put, Charlotte A. Cavatica is bigger than Julia Roberts... a lesson I fear Hollywood will never learn.

Review published 12.14.2006.

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