Mark Reviews Movies


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Gary Winick

Cast: Dakota Fanning, Kevin Anderson, Essie Davis, Gary Basaraba, the voices of Julia Roberts, Steve Buscemi, Dominic Scott Kay, John Cleese, Oprah Winfrey, Cedric the Entertainer, Kathy Bates, Reba McEntire, André Benjamin, Thomas Haden Church, Robert Redford, Sam Shepard

MPAA Rating: G

Running Time: 1:37

Release Date: 12/15/06

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Review by Mark Dujsik

It's fairly refreshing to have a faithful adaptation of a beloved children's tale brought to the screen. Gary Winick's version of Charlotte's Web captures the moral spirit of E.B. White's hugely popular barnyard fable. The film pretty much gets it right, putting the lessons learned in the forefront, and does a noteworthy job of bringing the cast of farm animals to life. Mixing real animals, animatronics, and computer animation, most of the talking critter effects work, although there are a few notable exceptions. The movie spends a bit too much time on cheesy jokes and puns and the occasional harmless scatological gag, and it might seem a bit pandering to teach children lessons with really cute, anthropomorphized animals. That comes with the territory, though, and the latter is the entire point of White's story to begin with.  These are small concessions for a film that actually teaches kids principles and has a values system. While the film might sound preachy from all of that, Charlotte's Web is fun, bright, cheery, and doesn't lecture; it lets the story do the talking.

Young Fern (Dakota Fanning) lives on a farm with her family. One night, she goes out to the barn to find her father (Kevin Anderson) looking upon the new piglets. One of them is a runt, and before he can kill it, Fern stops him. She promises to take care of it and names it Wilbur. For a while, Fern and Wilbur are inseparable. She feeds it, takes it to school, keeps it in a baby carriage, and sings it to sleep at night. Her mother (Essie Davis) is concerned about the eventual fact of a 300-pound swine in the house, and her dad convinces Fern to give Wilbur to her uncle Homer's (Gary Basaraba) farm across the street. After Wilbur (voice of Dominic Scott Kay) is sent to his new home, he meets an assortment of new friends. Fern still visits, and a smokehouse sits ominously yards away. One night, he hears a voice from above trying to comfort him, and the next morning he discovers it was of a spider named Charlotte (voice of Julia Roberts) who becomes his first official friend. All is well until Wilbur learns the frightful truth from Templeton the rat (voice of Steve Buscemi, a great piece of casting) that all spring pigs end up on the Christmas dinner table.

From here we have the story pretty much everyone knows. To save her friend from slaughter, Charlotte begins spinning words in her web, and people come from miles around to see "some pig" that's both "terrific" and "humble."  In the meantime, there are some fart jokes that are completely out of place, and occasionally one of the farm animals will throw out some cheap one-liners. Templeton enjoys having a rotten egg to place in his den ("eggs-actly"), and when it breaks, "Guess the yolks on me."  Har har. It's a shame there are other similar bits throughout the film, because it's first visual gag is kind of dark and definitely priceless. After Fran vows to save Wilbur, Winick cuts immediately to a shot of bacon frying in a pan. The sheep in Homer's farm are also amusing, as their leader Samuel (voice of John Cleese) fruitless attempts to stop the flock from copying everyone. Also present in intervals are two crows (voices of Thomas Haden Church and André Benjamin) that really want corn but always seem to encounter the same scary man in every cornfield they come across.

The humor is only there as appeal to a much younger crowd, and there's enough going on beyond it to balance. While everything happens in the barn, Fern's mother visits Dr. Dorian (Beau Bridges) to discuss her daughter's obsession with Wilbur and the animals and her idea that they can talk. The doctor informs her that the imaginative stories are a childhood phase and that she will, sadly (the important choice of phrasing), grow out of it. Fern does mature out of her friendship with the pig, an element present in the original story but expanded upon here, but even though it's appreciated, the important part of the tale remains Wilbur's relationship with Charlotte. From her, he learns such maxims as "Once a promise is made, it needs to be kept" and that there's no use in worrying. They're basic morals, sure, but it's still nice to hear them flat out every now and then. Ten-year-old Dominic Scott Kay provides the voice of Wilbur and makes him sound like a curious young boy. Julia Roberts supplies Charlotte with a gentle voice, which is necessary as attempt to make an authentic-looking computer generated spider cute comes across a little too creepy.

The film is narrated by Sam Shepard, a fact that brought a smile to my face, and other familiars like Robert Redford, Oprah Winfrey, and Kathy Bates provide additional voices. Charlotte's Web is not without flaws, but it's getting rare to see values like friendship, loyalty, and sacrifice taught in children's fare. I may be setting myself up for ridicule, but those are certainly lessons any child could stand to learn and see in practice.

Copyright © 2006 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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