Charlotte’s Web: 4 Stars (out of 5)
Remakes are tricky things (just ask Bryan Singer whose Superman Returns struggled in comparison with Richard Donner’s original, and we won’t discuss Peter Jackson’s epic remake of King Kong that made Waterworld seem like a SuperBowl commerical). I mention this because today the much beloved children’s book by E.B. White, and the 1973 animated film, get a make-over in an all new live action version of Charlotte’s Web with Dakota Fanning. The result is some, terrific, radiant, and yes humble, film.
When her father (Kevin Anderson) attempts to slaughter the runt of the litter, young Fern (Dakota Fanning) steps in. Unwilling to let the young spring pig be killed simply because he is small she decides take care of little Wilbur (Dominic Scott Kay) herself. Fern’s fascination and friendship with Wilbur worry her mother (Essie Davis) and father, who of course want her playing with human friends.
As Wilbur grows too big Fern is forced to give him up to her uncle (Gary Basaraba) who lives across the road. There Wilbur makes new friends including a group of sheep led by Samuel (John Cleese), a pair of geese (Oprah Winfrey, Cedric the Entertainer), a horse (Robert Redford), a pair of cows (Reba McEntire, Kathy Bates), a rat (Steve Buscemi), and a spider named Charlotte (Julia Roberts).
Wilbur’s odd manor and gusto for life win over the animals in the barn, but they begin to worry that Wilbur won’t make it to Christmas. His fate will likely be decided where all spring pigs go – in the smokehouse.
To save this strange pig Charlotte hatches a plan which brings publicity to the farm and Wilbur. But will it be enough to save the pig from becoming Christmas dinner?
Any fan of Babe should enjoy this film which uses the same style and effects. Fans of the book should also be pleased that the spirit is so much alive. Credit for this goes to Dakota Fanning who is perfectly cast in the role of the stubborn and strong Fern, Dominic Scott Kay giving us the voice of naive innocence as Wilber, the complex special effects that look both simple and real, and to Julia Roberts who provides just the right notes as the voice of Charlotte.
My favorite performace however comes from Thomas Haden Church, who with Andre Benjamin play a pair of crows who cannot overcome their fear of the scarecrow. It’s just too funny. The film also has some clever jokes for adults, including a few at the expense of the sheep.
True, it takes a little time to get over the small creep factor of a rat and spider being main characters, but the story and the actors shine through the rough exteriors. Smaller children may have problems with this, but I think most will get caught up in the story, and soon forget an initial ick-factor they might feel, and be swept away by this wonderful tale.