'Charlotte's Web'

EntertainmentPetsMoviesCelebritiesGary WinickDakota FanningAnimation (genre)

The E.B. White wonder known as "Charlotte's Web" is told in such simple,beautiful language that any film version is bound to come up a littlerunty by comparison. Yet if you don't expect the moon or any directorialdistinction, the new adaptation of the 1952 classic works on its ownterms while respecting the original. I liked it. I didn't love it theway I love the book, but the book ... well, that is some book.

The last "Charlotte's Web" on film was the animated 1973 Hanna-Barberafeature. The new, live-action version was shot in Australia (doublingfor White's beloved Maine), using 47 different pigs to play the role ofWilbur. It stars Dakota Fanning as Fern, the girl with the pig.

Voiced by Dominic Scott Kay, Wilbur is a spring pig. The other animalsin Uncle Homer's barn know what that means: He is unlikely to make itpast the winter, since a pig means pork to a farmer. Wilbur isfortunate, however, to have two female saviors in his corner. One is ahuman, Fern. The other is a spider, Charlotte, who engages in thesweetest public-relations campaign ever conducted on behalf of a swine.

With one exception, the voice work is very sharp. Alongside human actorsFanning, Kevin Anderson (Fern's farmer dad), Essie Davis (mom) and BeauBridges (as the kindly, animal-friendly doctor), the animals run theshow. There's Templeton the rat, spoken by Steve Buscemi, who manageslovely, self-satisfied flourishes with lines such as: "A rat's gotta askhimself: What's in it for the rat?" John Cleese tut-tuts with alacrityas the leader of the sheep; Oprah Winfrey and Cedric the Entertainertrade banter as goose and gander, respectively; Kathy Bates and RebaMcEntire trade drawls as a pair of gossipy cows; and, sounding somewhattentative, Robert Redford provides the voice of Ike, the horse.

Now, about the spider. Julia Roberts voices Charlotte in a way thatsuggests ... not much, I'm afraid. She may be a genuine movie star andcan be a good actress, but her voice--and what she does with it--neverhas been one of her strengths. In both "Ant Bully" and "Charlotte's Web"her animation characterizations have lacked shading and variety andrhythmic change-ups.

The close-ups of the computer-animated Charlotte are also a problem: Theanimators have given her eyes as big and consciously adorable as thoseof the cutest space alien. (The book's Garth Williams illustrationsnever depicted Charlotte at close range.) It's too bad, because White'scherished character deserves to be treated with as much class anddistinction as can be mustered.

Happily most of "Charlotte's Web" is better than that. Director GaryWinick keeps the film's modesty of scale and generosity of spirit inmind throughout. The story has a pull like few others, and Sam Shepard'snarration keeps everything easy and unpretentious, in sync with White'sprose. Even with the addition of Thomas Haden Church and Andre Benjaminvoicing a pair of scavenging crows, the vibe never gets too brash or"Over the Hedge"-y, which is a relief, since co-writer Karey Kirkpatrickwas one of the creators of "Over the Hedge."

White considered Thoreau's "Walden" an indispensable book. "I keep itabout me in much the same way one carries a handkerchief--for relief inmoments of defluxion or despair," he wrote. Millions, of course, feelthe same way about "Charlotte's Web." This story never was a story forchildren alone. But preteen moviegoers and their overseers, just nowrecovering from the emotional ravaging supplied by "Happy Feet," shouldfind the film version a comfort.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Comments
Loading