I should confess straight off that somehow or other E.B. White’s 1952 book Charlotte’s Web is not a part of my childhood, though I’m certainly from exactly the right era. I don’t really know why. Maybe I thought it was a “girl’s book.” Well, OK, I preferred Nancy Drew to the Hardy Boys (wanna make something of it?) so that excuse is out. Actually, I think I simply disliked the cover art (I know, I know — those illustrations are classics). But whatever the reason, it was — and is — a book I knew of without knowing.
I did have the misfortune of seeing a large chunk of the 1973 Hanna-Barbera cartoon with songs by the then ubiquitous Sherman Brothers, but all that did was tell me what I hoped Gary Winick’s version would not be. And thankfully, the film isn’t like the cartoon.
Winick’s film is a quiet work of some charm and wit that captures the essence of White’s story with a minimum of pandering to modern tastes. The film’s embellishments — apart from the requisite flatulence gags here given, uh, voice by a pair of gaseous bovines — are rarely jarring, and it was a good decision to place the story in the context of a vaguely period setting, giving it something of a timeless quality. The story is allowed to be itself, which, in this case, means that we’re given a tale that seems far simpler than it is.
On one level, this is simply a tale of friendship and of the sacrifices we sometimes have to make for our friends — as witness Charlotte the spider’s efforts to save Wilbur the pig from becoming Christmas dinner at great cost to herself. However, there’s more here than that. Within the story’s simple confines, it deals with the whole life cycle — going from birth to death to birth with time-out for subtle observations about our own changes as we go through life. When the story begins — and for much of its length — nothing on earth is as important to young Fern Arable (Dakota Fanning) as protecting the pig whose life she saved, but along the way growing up starts to intrude, and her interests shift toward human interaction in the form of a cute boy. (Reminiscent of A.A. Milne, who had already touched on the passing of childhood interests in the final chapter of The House at Pooh Corner.) These are the elements that give the story its surprisingly strong emotional resonance.
There’s also a vein of unstressed satire to the story, with its sly acknowledgement of the cult of celebrity — and the tentative nature of celebrity — in that Wilbur is saved from his fate by the power of advertising. Charlotte is essentially the world’s first P.R. arachnid, touting Wilbur’s virtues by writing “break-out quotes” in her web — something she has to do repeatedly in order to keep the attention of a fickle public. (It’s hardly coincidental that her second effort, “Radiant,” is cribbed from an advertisement for Oxydol laundry detergent.) All this is good and handled well in the film, even if no one seems to wonder why people are entranced by Wilbur, but largely unfazed by the prospect of a spider that can write.
Most of the additions — specifically the inclusion of a pair of Dumbo-esque crows (voiced by Andre Benjamin and Thomas Haden Church) — work fairly well. Similarly, the voice casting is generally spot-on, though Julia Roberts’ work as Charlotte feels forced in the early scenes. The Danny Elfman score is also a plus, occasionally sounding like a cross between his Edward Scissorhands (1990) and Big Fish (2003) work with an intriguing nod or two to Walter Schumann’s hymn-based score from Night of the Hunter (1955).
I can only assume that the somewhat pious tone — veering toward religiosity — that’s been grafted on is the result of the participation of Walden Media, which is noted for such. (The term “miracle” is overused and the ad campaign, “Help is coming from above,” smacks of Walden.) It’s not stressed to the point where it damages the film, but it doesn’t really belong in a film that otherwise honors its source by sticking to more universal themes.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke