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Charlotte's Web (2006)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Some Pig Indeed"
5 stars

When I walked into the screening of “Charlotte’s Web,” the latest big-screen incarnation of the classic children’s book by E.B. White, it was with more than the usual amount of trepidation. On the one hand, the story has been a personal favorite of mine ever since I encountered it as a wee lad–I rank it as one of the all-time greatest books alongside “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” “The Razor’s Edge,” “The Physician’s Desk Reference” and “The Psychotronic Video Guide”–and it taught me lessons that I have retained to this day regarding the inevitability of death, the importance of a well-chosen word and the beauty of spiders. (Oddly enough, it had virtually no influence on me regarding the subject of bacon consumption.) On the other hand, the delicacy of White’s narrative gifts has never been served particularly well by Hollywood–witness the uninspired 1973 animated version of the story or the garish violence that was done to his equally lovely “Stuart Little”–and the notion of a mega-expensive adaptation with an all-star cast lending their voices to the animals seemed to indicate that this attempt would be more of the same. Happily, I can report that this is not the case and that the film is an utter delight for viewers of all ages.

For those who have somehow gone through their assuredly miserable lives without having been exposed to the story, “Charlotte’s Web” opens one night as young farm girl Fern Arable (Dakota Fanning) is awoken by the sound of a litter of pigs being born. Alas, one is a runt and Dad (Kevin Anderson) is about to do the inevitable when Fern pleads for him to spare it and promises to take care of it herself. Dad relents and soon Fern and the pig, now known as Wilbur (Dominic Scott Key), are inseparable. Before long, Wilbur grows too big for Fern to keep in the house and she agrees to house him across the street in the barn belonging to her uncle while visiting him every chance she gets. While whiling away the long hours waiting for Fern, Wilbur meets the other denizens of the barn–grumpy horse Ike (Robert Redford), stand-offish sheep Samuel (John Cleese), married geese Gussy (Oprah Winfrey) and Golly (Cedric the Entertainer), bossy cows Bitsy (Kathy Bates) and Betsy (Reba McEntire) and icky rat Templeton (Steve Buscemi)–and tries to make friends with them to little avail. If that weren’t bad enough, they inadvertently let slip to Wilbur about his inevitable trip to the fearsome-looking smokehouse out back.

Needless to see, Wilbur is horrified–like any right-thinking person, he would prefer to see the first snow of winter instead of being turned into a spiral-cut ham. Luckily for him, there is one other creature in the barn who feels the same way. This is Charlotte (Julia Roberts), a sweet-natured spider who lives up in the rafters of the barn and maintains a cheery disposition even though she gives the creeps to virtually everyone else in the barn. Not Wilbur–he thinks Charlotte is beautiful (even after she explains her dining habits in detail) and the two become fast friends as Charlotte vows to save Wilbur from his honey-glazed destiny. Her idea is brilliant in its simplicity–one night, she writes the words “SOME PIG” in her web on the assumption that people will read the message and realize that Wilbur is, in fact, some pig. It works and for a while, he becomes a local sensation. Eventually, interest wanes and Charlotte comes up with additional messages to promote Wilbur off the holiday menu–even the self-centered Templeton pitches in with additional words when it is pointed out to him that if there is no Wilbur around, there won’t be any leftover slop for him to feast on–but the strain begins to take a toll on her. Nevertheless, when Wilbur is entered in the local 4-H fair, Charlotte realizes that a blue ribbon will save his bacon for good and sneaks along in order to provide a final message at an enormous personal cost.

With its messages about friendship, not judging books by their cover and how death can serve as a beginning as well as an end, “Charlotte’s Web” is a timeless story and one of the things that I enjoyed most about this film is that director Gary Winick and screenwriters Susannah Grant and Karey Kirkpatrick have resisted the urge to try to update the tale into contemporary terms. Although it takes place in no specified time period, there are no iPods, no hit songs and no pop-culture references to break the mood of the story because the filmmakers correctly realize that the basic story is sound and compelling enough that it doesn’t require such distractions. Instead, they stick closely to the contours of White’s book and while some kids may find themselves perplexed at first by a world where county fairs thrive and video games and televisions are nowhere to be found, they will quickly grow accustomed to the slower rhythms of the film. In fact, the only jarring note in the film comes during its one concession to contemporary tastes–a brief flatulence joke–and even that can be sort of forgiven since it is over so quickly that some may not even notice it in the first place.

On a technical scale, the film is a massive achievement that is especially impressive because it never looks like a special-effects blockbuster. Like the “Babe” films, the animals have been created using any number of tricks but they have been achieved in such a flawless manner that for all intents and purposes, it looks as though we are seeing real animals having real conversations. Also like the “Babe” films, the animals are more fully-drawn as characters than most humans that we see in movies these days and as a result, we respond to them in deep and unexpected ways–we laugh at Templeton as he struggles to hide the kindness behind his shifty persona, we are charmed at the relationship between Fern and Wilbur and during the final scenes, even the hardest hearts in the audience, young and old alike, will find their eyes filling up with tears–first with sadness at a tragic turn of events and then with joy as we discover the silver lining in that particular cloud.

As I said before, I am a lifelong devotee of “Charlotte’s Web” and as a result, I may not be the most unbiased of viewers–I even recall once have fond memories of that hideous cartoon adaptation (which at least had the wit to have Paul Lynde as the voice of Templeton). That said, this film is an unabashed delight that is hilariously funny, deeply touching without being schmaltzy and flawlessly cast–Julia Roberts is perfect as the warmly maternal Charlotte, Steve Buscemi is a scream as Templeton and the others (including Thomas Haden Church and Andre Benjamin as a pair of cockeyed crows stalking Templeton) are able to lend their voices to the proceeding without serving as a distraction. (It took me almost an hour to realize that Robert Redford was doing the voice of Ike the horse.) Most of the time when I review a movie based on a famous children’s book, I tend to suggest that you would be better off spending your money on purchasing a copy of the book and reading it to your kids instead. While you should still do that–a childhood without “Charlotte’s Web” is like a childhood without fresh air–I must admit that this is one of the few times when a film based on an acclaimed piece of children’s literature is actually worthy of comparison to the original source material.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=15298&reviewer=389
originally posted: 12/15/06 00:00:56
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User Comments

8/14/14 Mario is the Best I love this movie! 5 stars
7/26/12 Amanda Smith Cute, but I got bored since I read the book years before. 5 stars
11/28/09 Rachel My family loves this movie. Very cute for children! 5 stars
8/18/08 Shaun Wallner Great Kids Film! 5 stars
2/17/08 Tiffany Losco Dakota fanning is so cute!! My daughter loved this movie. 5 stars
1/26/08 Pamela White wonderful adaptation its in my library 4 stars
11/20/07 G. Webster wonderful children's movie 4 stars
10/13/07 Brian Hallahan They crucified a literary gem. READ THE BOOK!! 1 stars
7/09/07 ES This was a masterfully done film 5 stars
7/02/07 William Goss Wholly winning adaptation of E.B. White's classic. 5 stars
5/02/07 David Pollastrini The pig was cute 3 stars
4/18/07 Abs A great film for kids. They'd love it. Adults, probably not so due to improbable plot 4 stars
4/11/07 the wizz So lame. a spider writes words in a web and the world craps their pants. YAWN 1 stars
1/17/07 Jeanne Masters Don't let Hollywood bean counters tell you what this story is about: READ THE BOOK! 1 stars
12/31/06 Sr. Margaret Ann, CSC I loved the book so it is not surprise that I love the film. It stayed true to the story. 5 stars
12/30/06 Michelle It brought back so many memories from my childhood, very heartwarming 5 stars
12/15/06 Richard Paquette excelent childrens movie 4 stars
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  15-Dec-2006 (G)
  DVD: 03-Apr-2007



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