December 17, 2006

Movie Review: Charlotte's Web

Charlotte's Web seems like the perfect material to stage a big family movie around. I have great memories of the book, by EB White. When I was just a young one, learning to read, Charlotte's Web was my favorite book. Why, I could not say, but there was something magical about the story. The tale of thr runty pig just got itself lodged in my brain, to where I would read the book over and over and over again. I eventually grew out of that phase and have not visited the book in a probably a good twenty years. Now, here we are faced with a new movie, and I am helpless in avoiding it. I am drawn to it, like a moth to a flame, I had to see if it could rekindle those memories of long ago.

The movie is the story of Fern and Wilbur. Fern awakes early one morning and finds her father in the barn tending to the newly born litter of pigs. One of those pigs is a runt, but before daddy can take him out back for what is the inevitable fate of a runty pig, Fern stops him and saves the young pig its fate. What follows is a heartwarming tale of a young girl's love for a pig and the strength of a promise. Beyond that, it is the story of the power that we possess, regardless of what we look like or how big we are, we can be seen for our actions. It is a delightful story for the family, and this filmed version does a pretty good job of telling it.

As I sat down in the darkened theater, I was a little bit excited, even at my advanced age, in anticipation of a family movie. As I sat there watching it play out in front of me, I kept waiting to feel that magic I did when I read the book so many years ago. Sadly, the magic never came. Occasionally there would be a flicker, an on-screen glimmer of hope that threatened to ignite those long forgotten feelings, but it would just as quickly die down to a glowing ember.

Charlotte's Web is faithful to the source material, at least to the best of my recollection. The characters all seem to be hitting the right marks, in particular the self absorbed, rat with a heart, Templeton. As a whole it is a movie that will bring a smile to your face as Wilbur the young pig brings a ray of terrific, radiant sunlight into the barn.

While the story brings a warmth, there is a certain flatness to the execution. In my mind I had memories of Babe go through my head. It is hard to ignore the similarities, especially with both having a talking pig at its center. Whereas Babe lit up the screen, Wilbur and crew just seem to be there. Not that it is bad, but there is definite room for improvement.

The cast is led by Dakota Fanning as Fern. She is definitely a young actress to keep an eye on, she has great presence and charisma and seems to be perfectly cast as our young heroine. The rest of the stars are content to do their work from an ADR booth. Julia Roberts gives a soothing performance as Charlotte, a spider with a great vocabulary and possibly a too realistic visualization. Other stars include Oprah Winfrey, Cedric the Entertainer, John Cleese, Robert Redford, Reba McIntire, Kathy Bates, Thomas Haden Church, Andre Benjamin, and Steve Buscemi. That brings me to Buscemi, he was easily the strongest of the voice cast, his work as Templeton perfectly captures the rat I remember reading about so many years ago.

Director Doug Winick brings an easy watchability to the film, giving it a soft look that just invites the family in and makes you feel welcome, while never really giving it a distinct look. The screenplay was written by Susannah Grant and Karey Kirkpatrick. It is a fine script that thankfully steers clear of any attempt to update the language with modern vernacular.

Bottomline. It is a delightful film for the family. It has some decent voice performances and hits all the right notes as it heads towards its climax. It gently gives an introduction to the life and death cycle without ever feeling morose. It is a nice adaptation that may not be equal to its literary counterpart, but delivers the goods for all involved.



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