Measuring director Gary Winick's live-action adaptation of Charlotte's Web against the 1995 classic Babe can set off a chicken-or-the-egg kind of argument. Wilbur, the porcine hero of the new film, looks, behaves and even sounds suspiciously like Babe, only without the talent for herding sheep.
Babe, though, showed more than a passing similarity to E.B. White's original book from 1952, which also depicts a young pig's efforts to find a destiny beyond somebody's ham dinner. The more pressing question turns out to be whether Winick's expensive adaptation of Charlotte's Web keeps faith with one of the most beloved children's books ever written. This generation's Charlotte's Web makes some unfortunate concessions to contemporary comedic styles, but ultimately respects the values of the book.
We enter the story from the point of view of the only well-developed human character, Fern (Dakota Fanning), who begs her father (Kevin Anderson) to spare a runty newborn piglet from the chopping block. As young Wilbur's surrogate mother, Fanning gives Fern an almost severe intensity that stands out amid the flat sappiness of the human scenes.
Not a moment too soon, Wilbur relocates to a neighboring farm, where he and his barnyard bunkmates speak with celebrity voices, including John Cleese, Robert Redford and Oprah Winfrey. The animals initially give boyish Wilbur (Dominic Scott Kay) a cold shoulder, and Templeton the rat (Steve Buscemi) tells him the hard truth about what the farm's smokehouse is for.
As domesticated animals, Wilbur and company seldom leave the confines of the barn, and Winick, seemingly flummoxed by the plot's restrictions, relies on animal pratfalls and other slapstick to keep audience interest. And while barnyards can be synonymous for earthy humor, the film's bodily function jokes seem too coarse for a G-rated film, and would be unthinkable in either the original book or Hanna-Barbera's upbeat but bland 1973 animated feature.
The film finds more successful comic relief with the pair of crows (Andre Benjamin and Thomas Hayden Church) who crave corn but keep getting psyched out by a motionless scarecrow. Plus, Templeton's larger-than-life appetites and gleeful selfishness give the film some personality. If any actor can be considered "typecast" as a rat, it's Buscemi, who rivals Paul Lynde's haughty Templeton from the 1973 film. Templeton's twisty rat-holes, decorated with odd and ends, provide one of the film's most intriguing images, and there's even an echo of Indiana Jones when he tries to outrun a rolling, rotten egg.
The film shifts its attention to higher things when Wilbur befriends Charlotte the spider (Julia Roberts), who resolves to come up with a plan to save Wilbur's life. With her spunk and erudition, Charlotte seems like an irrepressible Julie Andrews character, but Roberts appropriately infuses the voice with more low-key sensitivity and wisdom. Charlotte also proves the film's subtlest computer-animated creation, coming across as expressive and friendly while having an undeniably creepy arachnid face. Her web-spinning scenes have a lovely delicacy, and when Charlotte notices a stray thread that resembles a letter "S," the film offers a charming "Eureka!" moment.
Despite some too-modern touches, Charlotte's Web doesn't neglect the book's heartfelt aspects. Charlotte argues that Wilbur qualifies as "Some Pig" and deserves rescue not for any particular thing he does, but for who he is, an intriguing message about valuing decency (human or otherwise).
Even more, the plot conveys the sacredness of the written word. When Charlotte and Wilbur coax Templeton to find new words in the garbage, the story suggests the power and mystique of an adjective such as "radiant." Credit White, who co-authored the definitive writing handbook The Elements of Style, with writing a story that conveys such a love of words. Charlotte turns out to be a marketing genius.
Charlotte's Web builds to an effective, tear-jerking climax that doesn't avoid the truths of mortality, and the closing credits charmingly imitate Garth Williams' illustrations from the original book. Winick's Charlotte's Web is unlikely to outlive either Babe or White's book, but its rare lapses in taste don't prevent it from offering a warm family outing.
That'll do, pig.
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