A lackluster live-action remake of E.B. White’s classic children’s tale.
Since E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web is the best-selling children’s paperback of all time, chances are good that you are therefore familiar with it. It is the story of Wilbur the pig, runt of the litter, who is saved by a little girl named Fern Arable. She secures him a spot on the Zuckermans’ farm across the street, where she thinks he will be safe. But the animals in the barn know better; they’ve never seen a spring pig live to see the snows of winter. When Wilbur strikes up an unlikely friendship with Charlotte the spider, she tries to save him by spinning words describing all his winning qualities into her web to convince the farmer that he is a “terrific”, “radiant”, and “humble” pig.
I remember first seeing the animated version of Charlotte’s Web as a child and loving it—crying when Charlotte dies, the whole nine. It is an accessible way to give children a first taste of some of the tough concepts (the cycle of life) and important values (true friendship) in the world while also managing to be a compelling story. And though I fear this is going to be an unpopular opinion, I was unable to reconnect with any of those that in this new version of the story.
This Charlotte’s Web is a live-action remake, à la Babe. And while the live action distinguishes it from its cartoon predecessor of 1973, it makes it bear entirely too much resemblance to the Babe series. Even if the Charlotte’s Web story has been around longer, we’ve already seen a live-action movie with a typical farm-animal supporting characters (sheep, cows, etc.) and a lead pig who has to deal with the harsh realities of agrarian life.
The story is supposed to take place on a farm in Maine, but the movie, which was shot on location in Australia, looks for all the world like Iowa (e.g., rolling prairie instead of rain and evergreens). The studio had to use 47 different pigs to play Wilbur, and it shows – at times he actually varies noticeably in size from shot to shot. And though Dakota Fanning does seem quite comfortable with her porcine costars, her acting skills are no longer keeping pace with her age.
On the flip side, I’m not what you would call a pig-lover. In fact, I can still recall all too vividly the stifling stench of the pig pavilion from a state fair I attended a few years back. But for as much as I dislike pigs (or at least their aroma), the piglets who play Wilbur are cute enough to win over even my frosty heart. Director Gary Winick (13 Going on 30, Tadpole) assembled an all-star cast, including the voices of Julia Roberts as Charlotte the spider, Steve Buscemi as Templeton the rat, John Cleese as Samuel the sheep, Oprah Winfrey and Cedric the Entertainer as Gussy the goose and Golly the gander, Kathy Bates and Reba McEntire as Bitsy and Betsy the cows, and Robert Redford as Ike the horse. I especially liked Thomas Haden Church and André Benjamin as Brooks and Elwyn, the corn-obsessed crows.
But for all that effort, I just found this adaptation boring. I think the main problem for me was that unlike so many other kids’ movies these days (Happy Feet, Finding Nemo, etc.), Charlotte’s Web is really skewed toward very young children. The plot line is simple and obvious, the dialogue facile, and the jokes unfunny to anyone who prefers something above the “knock knock” variety.
But maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be. And while one little kid burst out into hysterics every time the spider came on and had to be repeatedly removed from the theater, another one seemed to adore it. One the way out of the movie, I overheard his mother ask him what his favorite part was, and he replied, “I loved every minute of it.”