Charlotte's Web is not an easy book to adapt to film – just look at the animated version [which the book's author, E.B. White, hated]. Could a live-action version of the book actually work – especially when there are so many ways it could get screwed up? In a word, yes! Charlotte's Web is a delight from the animated opening credits, to the final scene…
Charlotte's Web should have been an unmitigated disaster – there were so many ways it could have been screwed: miscasting; inserting what E.B. White referred to as "jolly songs" every five or six minutes [as was done with the egregious animated version]; the melding of live-action with CGI could have been too awkward; the important character death could have been handled with – you should pardon the expression – kid gloves; and so on and so forth…
Instead, we get a film that's literate without flaunting its intelligence; funny without being stupid [though the whole concept of smart fart jokes does boggle the mind]; poignant without being sappy, and warm and fuzzy without cloying.
The whole, extraordinary tale begins with a young girl refusing to let her father slaughter a pig that had the misfortune to be born not only a runt, but one too many to be nursed by his mother. Fern [Dakota Fanning] names her new pet Wilbur and they become best friends. To the surprise of her family, Wilbur flourishes – until Fern has to go back to school. Then he is carted off to her Uncle Homer's [Gary Basaraba] farm, where things begin to get really interesting…
When Wilbur [voiced by Dominic Scott Kay] tries to befriend Homer's animals, they resist – because they all know what happens to spring pigs [ominous shots of Homer's smokehouse bring home that point]. When his efforts are rebuffed, a gray spider with a mellifluous voice and the imposing name of Charlotte A. Cavatica [voiced by Julia Roberts] decides to talk with him. Before long, Homer's barn is filled with conversations and all the animals become friends. Unfortunately, the specter of the smokehouse hangs over Wilbur – but Charlotte promises him that he will live to see the coming snow.
Charlotte's Web is, like the book, about making friends, and the work that goes into keeping them. It's also about the kind of love that opens the imagination and makes sacrifices. It's about life and death – and shies away from neither. In short, it's about stuff that matters – to a twelve-year old girl; to a twelve-year old girl's father; to anyone and everyone who has the capacity to see and pursue the good in life.
I think that part of the reason that the film works so well is that it neither speaks down to kids, nor up to adults. It may be filled with barnyard humor and the kind of drama that makes life interesting, but it is remarkably even-handed in the manner in which it presents these moments. Both the screenplay [by Susannah Grant and Karey Kirkpatrick], and its interpretation by director Gary Winnick, are simple [which is not the same as stupid], direct and heartfelt.
The specter of death that hovers over Wilbur is delivered as matter-of-factly as Fern's first interest in a boy. Both are a part of life – nothing more. In dealing with such topics in this kind of way, Winnick and his screenwriters make it easy for the film's G-Rated audience [everyone from two to one hundred and two] to enjoy it without feeling manipulated. [Movies are meant to manipulate us – it's the ones that don't seem to be doing so which are the great ones…]
Winnick handles the joys and sorrows of Charlotte's Web with a touch that is firm enough to give them substance and light enough to give them life. His supporting cast is superb. Among the live-action cast, Kevin Anderson stands out as Fern's caring but bemused father, and Gary Basaraba's Homer is a delight. From the voice cast, I have to single out Steve Buscemi, who voices Templeton, the rat with a well-hidden heart of gold.
But the film rests squarely on the shoulders of young Dominic Scott Kay and the barely older Dakota Fanning. Kay does a remarkable job, giving Wilber a wistfulness that could break hearts and an enthusiasm that warms them. Fanning continues to astound – her performance here is as nuanced as any she's given. Fern is a real farm girl and everyone in the theater at the early screening I attended will be happy to tell you so. Her discovery that a boy likes her is as important as her decision to save Wilbur – and her plans to help Wilbur are as intelligent as they are child-like. And both are treated with just the kind of gravity that a twelve-year old would give them.
My advice to you is this: go, enjoy – but bring tissues. Charlotte's Web will affect you on many levels – just as Charlotte affects Wilbur, and every animal in the barn. I have a feeling that this film will be regarded as a classic. It's that good.