E.B. White’s book is “Charlotte’s Web” the classic; Paramount and Walden Media’s film is “Charlotte’s Web” the commodity. A sorely disappointing screen adaptation of one of the most artful and widely read children’s books of the past century, this highly polished picture is superficially faithful, even reverential to its source, but evinces neither imagination nor a personality of its own. Given the property, big-name cast and film’s inoffensive nature, however, it would be hard for this pic to miss commercially with general audiences over the holidays.
Revered since its 1952 publication for its inventive narrative about a brainy spider’s intervention to save the life of a runty barnyard pig, White’s tale holds such a special place in the hearts of many children and parents because of the way it so gently but resonantly introduces youngsters to the natural cycles of life, from birth to death. That it’s literate and droll in the bargain is icing on the cake.
The thesps and production values of this second bigscreen version (Hanna-Barbera made an animated musical in 1973) can scarcely be faulted. Surely Dakota Fanning would be anyone’s first choice to play Fern, the plucky girl who convinces her father not to destroy the spring litter’s odd pig out. And you couldn’t really do better than Julia Roberts voicing Charlotte, Steve Buscemi as Templeton the selfish rat, Oprah Winfrey and Cedric the Entertainer as chatty geese, Kathy Bates and Reba McEntire as down-home cows, Andre Benjamin and Thomas Haden Church as aggressive crows and, lo and behold, Robert Redford as a horse and John Cleese as a sheep.
But virtually from the outset, it’s clear something is amiss. The dialogue issues forth with no variation of pace. The comedy is never set up by pauses or distractions, resulting in very few laughs. The camera always moves in or pulls back to accentuate precisely the emotional point being made, and the cuts and music cues inevitably come exactly when you think they will.
Nowhere to be found is any dramatic surprise, heightening of the pulse or genuine pulling of heartstrings. Gary Winick’s direction consists of button pushing, and the mechanics are palpable at every step. As spring passes into summer and summer into autumn, the leaves change color, but the film develops no rhythm of its own, no feel for the land or the animals. Even though the majority of the critters are real, with mouth movements added, they may as well have been computer animated for all the naturalness and life they convey (they also tend to fall over sideways a good deal when startled).
Once Charlotte, from her web above the barn door, promises the little porker Wilbur that she’ll save him from a smokehouse fate, Fanning has little to do, making this perf one of the least interesting in her prodigiously precocious career. As the spider continues to spin laudatory words about the pig into her web to the amazement of the locals, the general notion develops that Wilbur is, indeed, “some pig,” but mostly one reflects upon how much better “Babe” did this sort of thing 11 years ago.
With verdant rural areas of Victoria, Australia, standing in for Somerset County, Maine, pic boasts an appealing timeless quality; cars and clothes are of mid-century vintage, and modern technology rears not its head onscreen, only in the way the film was made.