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"Charlotte's Web": Rebirth of literary treasure
Seattle Times movie critic
"It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both."
— E.B. White
I grew up with "Charlotte's Web," and quite possibly you did, too. Published in 1952, E.B. White's quiet tale of life, death and friendship on a family farm is a small masterpiece of children's literature. Wilbur, a runt pig, is saved from a smokehouse fate by the machinations of a clever spider, Charlotte, who weaves words of praise for the pig into her web. Wilbur is spared the ax, but Charlotte herself dies at the end of the eventful summer, serenely accepting that her time has come.
It's a funny book, with lots of dialogue for the animals (I was quite fond of the goose, who repeated-repeated-repeated everything three times) and subtle character notes for the humans. And, when you read it again as an adult, you can almost hear White chuckling in the background: There's a weird, off-kilter quality to the book, in that everyone gets worked up over the pig and no one (except the farmer's wife, in one comment) seems to give much thought to the spider. Charlotte is the quietest of heroes, but her intelligence pervades the book, and her gentle spirit seems to flavor it, particularly in the lyrical final pages.
So, is the movie, a live-action version with computer-enhanced talking animals (think "Babe"), as good as the book? Of course not — but then again, how could it be? Its screenplay, by Susannah Grant and Karey Kirkpatrick, wanders into generic voice-over, and adds some needless extra characters to goose up (as it were) the story's humor quotient. A pair of cows are on hand to provide the film with flatulence jokes (somehow, White's book has survived for generations without them); the pointless saga of a pair of crows and their feud with a scarecrow is added, strictly for comic relief.
But the film, directed by Gary Winick ("13 Going on 30") has a sweetness of its own. Dakota Fanning, in pigtails and overalls, brings eager energy to Fern, the farm girl who raises Wilbur. Ten-year-old Dominic Scott Kay gives a lilt to the voice of Wilbur, and Julia Roberts' matter-of-fact quality nicely suits Charlotte. Steve Buscemi is an inspired choice for the voice of Templeton the rat (who frequently speaks in sardonic third person, as in "The rat is losing his touch!"). And Charlotte's web-spinning sequences are nicely handled; she swoops and soars as she spells out "some pig" and "terrific," like a multi-legged ballerina.
Winick finds just the right balance for the film's more poignant moments — which, if overplayed, could too easily send the film into weeper territory. (That's not to say adults attending "Charlotte's Web" won't cry; be forewarned.) Charlotte's death is handled with sensitivity but not sentimentality, and the film has a lovely, quiet way of celebrating everyday miracles: birth, snow, a Ferris wheel, a new friend's voice. It's no substitute for reading the book, but this onscreen "Charlotte's Web" offers its own pleasures.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company