Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Director: Gary Winick
Producer: Jordan Kerner
It's only a mild heresy to turn a beloved children's book and animated film into a star vehicle for the wee Miss Fanning, the go-to child actress who has become Hollywood's only A-list star under the age of 13. The only real surprise is that she doesn't have her own production company yet.
And so we come to what must have been an inevitability: A live-action rendition of Charlotte's Web, complete with CGI-infused talking animals. The star power is out in force, at least in the barn. Fanning's Fern shepherds the action by adopting the runt of the swine litter, naming him Wilbur and placing him in foster care in her uncle's barn across the road in her tiny Maine farming community. Once in the confines of Zuckerman farm, the embittered animals begin to warm to young, impressionable Wilbur, while warning him exactly what humans keep pigs around for.
Eventually Wilbur is befriended by Charlotte the spider (voiced by Julia Roberts), who quickly vows to save him from his fate in the smokehouse. You probably know the drill: She weaves words into her web "SOME PIG," "TERRIFIC," and so on, which turns Wilbur into a local media sensation. The various other animals in the barn offer a hand here and there, most notably the rat Templeton (Steve Buscemi).
The film will inevitably -- and rightly -- be compared to the animated classic, a film so loved that it gives off that air of "don't mess with this movie." Yet there's messin; to be done. And aside from the obvious transition from cartoon to live action, here's what it entails.
The changes are subtle. For the most part, the new Charlotte's Web is a faithful and honest attempt to stick with its source material. But there's something here that has drained away some of the Web's magic. Is it an attempt to make the story more Fanning-focused? The movie has a more "kiddie" feel throughout. The animated film's best lines have gone missing here. In fact, one of my favorite lines of dialogue of all time has been excised. (It's from Templeton, who has been searching for new words to describe Wilbur and comes up with one from a popcorn box: "It says, 'Crunchy.'")
Instead of these clever moments, the film is filled with potty humor. Farting cows, the view of a horse's rear end, belches, drooling... these are the staples of the new Charlotte's Web. The source material is fine without such juvenile fare, and it's way out of place, weakening the film considerably over what is otherwise a perfectly serviceable affair for both kids and adults. (My four-year-old was only mildly distracted in the last half of the movie and sat quietly and patiently throughout the film.) The 96-minute film fairly flies by.
A word about casting: Roberts and Buscemi are inspired choices for their roles, but the remaining cast isn't quite as magical. Robert Redford is a horse. John Cleese is a sheep. Oprah Winfrey is a nattering goose. Thomas Haden Church is a crow. The voice work is fine, but it smells more of stunt casting to amuse the adults than anything else. (For what it's worth, Wilbur is voiced by an actual 10-year-old child.)
Rest assured that Charlotte's Web, 2006, is a perfectly fine film suitable for the Christmas season, possessing a good message about friendship and tolerance, and it's a movie which most kids will enjoy. (Though some will be scared to tears by the enormous, talking spider and the movie's occasional dark tones: The opening scene has a farmer threatening to behead a baby pig with an enormous axe.) A more apt comparison might be to look at Charlotte's Web next to that other talking pig movie, Babe, which is also superior in just about every way.
Bottom line: Charlotte's Web doesn't really encroach on the legacy and success of its animated ancestor. Frankly, the original Charlotte has nothing to worry about.
Maybe she's writing some new jokes.