Pig tale – 'Charlotte's Web' is 'some movie'

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 21, 2006

Charlotte’s Web

Rated: G

Starring: Dakota Fanning and the voices of Julia Roberts, Dominic Scott Kay, Steve Buscemi, John Cleese, Oprah Winfrey, Robert Redford, Kathy Bates, Reba McEntire

Directed by: Gary Winick

Written by: Susannah Grant and Kerry Kirkpatrick

Running length: 1 hour, 24 minutes

Rating: 3 stars (out of 4)

I have always avoided killing spiders. I leave the harmless ones alone, and try to direct the others to go outdoors. Could this be because, during childhood, I read the book “Charlotte’s Web” at least a dozen times?

Years later, as a mother, I had the opportunity to read the book aloud on more than one occasion. My daughters were equally entranced by Charlotte’s clever efforts to save humble Wilbur the pig from the smokehouse by weaving complimentary adjectives about him into her web. (And my daughters are now vegetarians. Hmm.)

Written by E.B. White in 1952, “Charlotte’s Web” is one of the best-selling, most- beloved children’s books in history, so you probably read it at some point in your life. If not, and you plan to see the movie, stop reading now! I don’t want to spoil the ending for you.

I first encountered the story when my second grade teacher read it to our class, a chapter per day. That was a long time ago, but I remember it, because I may have felt a bit traumatized by Charlotte’s passing. I don’t believe I had dealt with the death of a character before, and I remember the tears trickling down my cheeks as I glanced furtively about, not wanting classmates to see my tears.

I believe that is one of the most special things about the book. It serves as a gentle lesson about the cycle of life and the inevitable conclusion of all living things. This may make even more of an impression on today’s young moviegoers, accustomed to Hollywood endings and resurrected characters.

When filmmakers take a well-loved children’s book and turn it into a movie, we parents have to hope they won’t screw it up (a la “The Cat in the Hat” fiasco.) “Charlotte’s Web comes close to getting it right, even with unnecessary additions.

E.B. White is one of the greatest writers of all time, yet the script writers felt they had to embellish the story with some modern cliches and language (“the rat rules!”) and adolescent humor for audience appeal. Why do filmmakers assume that today’s audiences, including children, are not sophisticated enough to enjoy a movie that doesn’t include belching or passing of gas? While bovine flatulence may be a common part of barn-dwelling, it isn’t mentioned in White’s novel, or necessary to the film.

Also added are a pair of Heckle and Jeckle-like crows voiced by Thomas Haden Church and OutKast’s Andre Benjamin, perhaps inserted to help draw older teens and young adults into the theater. It was probably felt that some action was needed, so we have the rat Templeton being taunted and pursued by the crows in a fast-moving junkyard chase scene. The crow dialogue is somewhat amusing, but their scenes are incidental to the story.

Fortunately, the movie retains enough of White’s original language and story to keep it magical. It is necessarily condensed to make it a family-friendly length. Just as the Zuckerman’s farm has been moved across from the Arable’s house rather than down the road a-ways, events are preserved, but shifted closer together and dealt with quicker.

Dakota Fanning is enchanting as Fern and lights up every scene she is in. The other human characters are never really developed and are definitely upstaged by the animals, but that doesn’t mar the film.

An A-list stable of actors provides voices of the animals. Most recognizable is John Cleese’s imperious sheep. Oprah Winfrey sounds much more southern as a goose than she does as a talk-show host. (Why does a goose on a Maine farm have a southern accent anyway? I believe I’m analyzing this a little too much.) Cedric the Entertainer is the hen-pecked, or should I say “goose-pecked” gander husband of Oprah.

Kathy Bates and Reba McEntire provide voices for the pair of wisecracking and gassy cows. The already rat-like Steve Buscemi is Templeton. The most surprising discovery to me was that the voice of Ike the arachnophobic horse is that of Robert Redford.

One of the biggest celebrities provides the weakest performance. As the voice of Charlotte, Julia Roberts sometimes sounds bored, and as if she is reading her lines.

Child actor Dominic Scott Kay provides the voice of Wilbur. If I believed animals could really talk and act, I would think this was the same pig who played “Babe” a decade ago, minus the hairpiece. The voice and the personality are very similar.

The animatronics and computers applied to live animals result in some pretty amazing and realistic looking talking animals. The attention to nuances and facial expression is outstanding. Templeton the rat is particularly detailed, and may be a little scary for children accustomed to friendlier rodent characters. Templeton is no Stuart Little.

The film has visual appeal as it attempts to capture the look of the book’s illustrations. I recognized some of the poses in the movie from the pictures I saw so many times as a child.

Danny Elfman’s musical score is outstanding, capturing the film’s magic and radiance. Strings, harp and wordless chorus weave a musical underscore to Charlotte’s acrobatic web spinning.

I want to see this movie do well at the box office in hopes that will encourage movie makers to keep producing G-rated gems. I recommend that you take a break from your hectic holiday preparations to slow down, gather your family, and go to this movie. Its message, about finding miracles in the ordinary and the everyday, is one we should all listen to.

And when the time comes for me to go to that big barn in the sky, I would like my epitaph to read like the final words about Charlotte, that she was both “a true friend and a good writer.”


Contact Sarah Hall at 704-797-4271 or shall@salisburypost.com.