Charlotte's Web (2006)

Reviewed By Doug Bentin
Posted 12/28/06 09:45:46

"Surfing the web"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Gary Winick’s new live action/CGI combo version of E.B. White’s venerable fable about remaining whole in a world that wants to turn you into a sausage contains more sweetness than a panel truck full of Krispy Kremes, but it’s an agreeable change from the video game violence, strident screaming, and adolescent T&A that passes for children’s entertainment more times than not.

“Charlotte’s Web” definitely isn’t for adults, but to its credit, it doesn’t want to be. In fact, it’s gentleness level may be too high for some kids, and the down-home sentiment is even more pumped up, but there are millions of people out there—and yes, many of them are over 21—who thrive on this kind of sweetness and light, and they deserve an evening out at the movies, too. If Mel Gibson can make pictures for the sado-masochists among us that are taken seriously by the critics, someone should be making them for the other end of the audience spectrum.

Dakota Fanning, one of the most believable and natural actors on the scene, is Fern, a 12-year old Maine farm girl who refuses to allow her dad to kill the runt of a litter of pigs. She promises to take care of the little fella, names him Wilbur (voiced by Dominic Scott Kay), and treats him like a living baby doll.

But when he gets too large to keep at home, Wilbur is sold to the people across the road and goes to live in their barn. There he meets a new family of barnyard animals—a rat (Steve Buscemi), a sheep (John Cleese), two geese (Oprah Winfrey and Cedric the Entertainer), a horse (Robert Redford, who gets more than his share of the laughs), and two cows (Kathy Bates and Reba McEntire). Unfortunately, the cows and smelly rat give rise to three or four fart jokes, a depth of humor that was avoided by the book’s author, E.B. White, but seems de rigueur for most contemporary children’s films.

The animals don’t exactly dislike Wilbur, but the only one who really befriends him is Charlotte, the spider (Julia Roberts). When it’s determined that Wilbur is surely destined for a place beside the fried eggs on the breakfast table, Charlotte determines to find a way to help him. All the others see that Wilbur is just an ordinary runt piglet, but Charlotte believes that there is something extraordinary in all of us and thinks that if she can make Farmer Zuckerman see what it is in Wilbur, the little guy’s life will be spared come slaughter time.

If you don’t already know what she does you probably don’t care, but just in case, I won’t spoil the surprise.

The voice acting is superb. Dakota Fanning may wish she had been one of the unseen actors as their parts were much more fun than Fern, who is just a sweet little pre-adolescent girl on the verge of taking that big step away from animals and toward boys. Yes, there is a difference.

Danny Elfman’s score is one of his least bombastic and quirky. So gentle is it, in fact, I was surprised to see his name in the credits. Director Gary Winick (“13 Going on 30”) has kept the CGI non-flashy, and writers Susannah Grant and Kary Kirkpatrick show more respect for source material than is the norm.

The film demonstrates a gentle kindness in people and nature we wish were actually there more often, even though experience has shown us it isn’t. I know several people who have grown so disgusted with the greed, sexual game-playing, and power-grubbing of the contemporary novel for adults, they read nothing but children’s books. You may not want to give up the modern adult world entirely, but if you’re in need of a respite, you can’t do better than wrapping yourself in “Charlotte’s Web” for a couple of hours.

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