December 14, 2006

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Charlotte’s Web (G)
The story of a fantastically talented spider and her pig friend gets a jolly live-action adaptation in Charlotte’s Web, a sweet colorful movie based on E.B. White’s book.

Fern (Dakota Fanning) is one of those farm children who exist primarily in movies and who, thanks to their upbringings, are full of pluck and an inordinate amount of concern for animals. Why inordinate? Because you’d think if a girl’s father raised pigs she’d have learned rather young that it isn’t a good idea to get too attached. That bit of self-preservation missed Fern and when she sees her father scoop up the runt in a recently born pig litter and head toward the ax, she puts up a squeaky little fight. The father decides feeding a pig is easier than explaining the circle of life and decides to let Fern keep the little piglet. She names him Wilbur and takes care of him like he’s a child. She reads to him, she dresses him up and she even tries to sneak him in to school. When he gets a bit too big for the doll buggy, her parents send Wilbur to the barn at her uncle’s house across the street.

There Wilbur (Dominic Scott Kay) has loads of fellow animal barn mates — a sheep named Samuel (John Cleese), geese Gussy (Oprah Winfrey) and Golly (Cedric the Entertainer), flatulent cows Bitsy (Kathy Bates) and Besty (Reba McEntire), horse Ike (Robert Redford) and scheming rat Templeton (Steve Buscemi). Some of these animals are kinder than others but all are too busy to play with young Wilbur.

Just when it seems loneliness might be Wilbur’s destiny, he hears the voice of Charlotte A. Cavatica (Julia Roberts), an articulate spider living in the corner of the barn doorway. Despite being an ill-thought-of creature (spiders make Ike faint), Charlotte is kind to Wilbur and the two become friends. The other animals even join Charlotte in keeping from Wilbur the fact that spring pigs like him usually spend Christmas glazed and with an apple in their mouths. Templeton — not a rat concerned with niceties — lets this fate slip. Despite being a highly sensible spider, Charlotte calms the anxious Wilbur by promising him that she will make sure he isn’t eaten. And how is she going to do that? Marketing.

When the farmer’s son comes out to give Wilbur his slop one morning, he’s stunned to see the words “some pig” spelled out in a spider web over the door. The miracle brings the whole family running and eventually the whole town shows up to see him. When the luster of that phrase fades, Charlotte spins another superlative and eventually Wilbur gets a chance to compete for prize pig at the county fair. A blue ribbon, along with his fame, could help him escape the smokehouse.

Despite its all-star cast, the spotlight in this movie is on the 10-year-old voicing Wilbur and Roberts’ performance as Charlotte. Kay is the right amount of regular child with just enough actiness to give expression and personality to the live-action pig that plays him. Roberts — in a way she hasn’t been in a film in years — is perfect. She makes Charlotte the perfect combination of loving mom and patient teacher without a touch of the condescension that could have made such a character irritating. She makes the CGI spider seem loveable, even if you are the kind of person inclined to squish its real-life counterpart.

Yes, it does seem strange that everybody focuses on the pig and seemingly brushes aside the idea of a literate spider. But the movie is able to work through this knot without it seeming too nonsensical (and, really, once you buy into the idea that animals can talk…). In fact, what strikes me most about the story is how sweet it is and yet how honest it is about the facts of life. It doesn’t pussyfoot around the idea that things die, even beloved pets and good friends. And even when extraordinary measures save one life, the natural order of things ensures that others do not survive. Compared to most modern cartoons and blockbuster children’s entertainment, these concepts seem almost shockingly direct. And yet, mightn’t it be best for kids to learn early in life that things die, things are born and you can’t get everything you want?

This is perhaps the advantage that ye olde farm children have over modern children and the advantage that kids who read Charlotte’s Web and other classic children’s books will have over kids who don’t venture beyond the NickToons. Hopefully, this brightly colored, cheerily performed film will get kids not inclined to crack a book checking out White’s novel. A-

Rated G for everybody. Directed by Gary Winick and written by Susannah Grant, Karey Kirkpatrick and Earl Hamner Jr. (from the book of the same name by E. B. White), Charlotte’s Web is an hour and 36 minutes and will open in wide release on Friday, Dec. 15. It is distributed by Paramount Pictures.

— Amy Diaz