Charlotte's Web (United States, 2006)
As family features go, Charlotte's Web may be the best we have seen in a while. Technically adept and surprisingly affecting, the movie translates E.B. White's children's book into a motion picture that will enthrall children and engage their parents. The animals come to life with enough credibility that it's not out of the question that a few tears may be shed for a CGI creature. Strangely, even with plucky Dakota Fanning fronting for the human actors, the film loses some of its magic when it moves outside of the barn. Comparisons to Babe are expected and warranted, but one thing missing form this story is James Cromwell.
Since its 1952 publication, Charlotte's Web has been a children's favorite. It rests on many bookshelves alongside White's other books (which include Stuart Little). The 1973 release of an animated version widened the appeal of Charlotte, Wilbur, and Fern. This new movie is an attempt to bring the story to today's audiences. Perhaps those who enjoy the movie will seek out the book. Charlotte's Web isn't as popular as it was decades ago because reading had taken a back seat to the many other distractions available to children.
On the night of his birth, runt of the litter Wilbur (voice of Dominic Scott Kay) is saved from the ax by Fern (Dakota Fanning), who promises to keep the newly born pig safe. When Wilbur becomes too large to keep as a pet, she sells him to her uncle, who owns a barn across the street. He's close enough that she can visit him every day, but Fern isn't aware that Wilbur's ultimate destination is the smokehouse so he can be ready to be served for dinner on Christmas Day. In the barn, Wilbur becomes acquainted with the other residents: Templeton the rat (voice of Steve Buscemi), Samuel the sheep (voice of John Cleese), Ike the horse (Robert Redford), and Gussy and Golly the geese (voices of Oprah Winfrey and Cedric the Entertainer). While these animals are stand-offish, there is one creature in the barn who makes friends with the lonely pig: Charlotte the spider (voice of Julia Roberts). Her efforts in particular will be vital in keeping Wilbur alive long enough to see the winter snows. Her idea: convince the farmers that their new pig is too valuable to be used as pork.
The CGI animals are rendered with such care that many viewers will swear they're real creatures. (In fact, they sometimes are, but figuring out where the computer animators become involved is a perplexing proposition. That's how good the finished product is.) Charlotte is a curious mix of the creepy and the comforting. She looks like a spider, but the close-ups of her face soften the negative impressions many have when dealing with arachnids, and the soothing, familiar tones of Julia Roberts' voice further humanize Charlotte. A great deal of care was taken in making sure children wouldn't be made uneasy by the spider while still allowing her to be recognizable as what she is. Most of the other animals appear as they are.
In playing Fern, the talented Fanning is given a thankless job, and the lackluster actors around her don't provide much support. The people in this movie are far less developed than their animal counterparts, and the only time when Fern comes alive is when she's with her pig. Attempts to broaden her character by giving her a quasi-boyfriend and building up her family don't work. Ultimately, we only care about Fern as she relates to Wilbur, and that means being his #1 human supporter when it comes to keeping him out of the smoke house.
Usage of computer animation to effectively blend animals and people hasn't been done with any regularity, possibly because the penalties for failure are dire. The most notable examples of this working are the aforementioned Babe and its sequel but, with Charlotte's Web, director Gary Winick nails the accomplishment and the result is pleasant to watch. Charlotte's Web has all the requisite elements that a family film needs to succeed and endure: humor, drama, pathos, and an emotionally satisfying ending. Despite its flaws, none of which are burdensome, Charlotte's Web deserves to thrive both now in theaters and in the years to come on DVD.
Charlotte's Web (United States, 2006)
Cast: Dakota Fanning, Thomas Haden Church, André Benjamin, Reba McEntire, Kathy Bates, Cedric the Entertainer, Oprah Winfrey, John Cleese, Dominic Scott Kay, Steve Buscemi, and the voices of Roberts, Beau Bridges, Robert Redford
Screenplay: Susannah Grant and Karey Kirkpatrick, based on the book by E.B. White
Cinematography: Seamus McGarvey
Music: Danny Elfman
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Pictures