A spider that sucks the blood out of her victims is a tough sell as the sympathetic heroine of any story, much less one directed at kids. Yet, using the perfect blend of warmth and bite, and not a little humor, CHARLOTTE’S WEB has been doing that for over 40 years. A film version, such as the one brought about by director Gary Winick, has the added disadvantage of having to actually show Charlotte, the spider of the piece, not just in all her arachnid glory, but also actually cocooning one of her victims after giving him the kiss of death, as it were. Careful re-thinking of the spider’s anatomy, decreasing six of her eyes for example to make the two remaining ones limpid pools of wisdom and sincerity surmounting much reduced fangs helps, as does casting the infinitely soothing, aurally maternal voice of Julia Roberts as the spider in question.
Charlotte is the only one in Zuckerman’s barn to befriend Wilbur (Dominic Scott Hay), a recent arrival from across the road. He’s a spring pig and the runt of his litter who has had one brush with death, the night of his birth, and is headed for another one of which he is blissfully unaware. A plucky and friendly little guy, Wilbur finds his new home populated by serious-minded, working farm animals are immune to the charm of the adorable new kid who chatters endlessly and never grows tired of asking them to play. Charlotte, though, emerging from the shadows, takes him under her spinneret as the other animals look on dubiously, and when one of those animals tells Wilbur the facts of life, at least the facts as they apply to a spring pig, Charlotte makes him a promise that she will somehow save him. That would be from the smoke house, a structure that looms over the cheery red barn the way the mansard-topped family home loomed over the Bates Motel, where he will be translated into Christmas dinner.
The film mixes live action and CGI seamlessly. The animals, aside from the makeover of Charlotte’s face, are tweaked to give them personalities, and to match their mouths to the lines of dialogue, but not anthropomorphized much beyond slop-happy Templeton the Rat (Steve Buscemi’s) lolling on his back in his rat bed and munching on snack food or Wilbur’s heart-melting smile as he poses for pictures after Charlotte’s plans bring his positive attributes to the attention of the human world. Most of the effects work is done on Wilbur, Templeton, and Charlotte, though, making the others in the barn, Samuel the independent-minded sheep (John Cleese) and Ike the arachnophobic horse (Robert Redford), strikingly less, you’ll pardon the expression, animated despite excellent voice work from all concerned, including Thomas Haden-Church as a crow given to close study and uncertain conclusions about the scarecrows keeping him from a corn feast, and Cedric the Entertainer as a hen-pecked goose.
The weakest part of the film is the time spent with the humans, who pale in comparison dramatically and emotionally to the animals. Even Fern (Dakota Fanning), whose initial solemn and determined rescue of Wilbur from the axe and continuing efforts to convince her family to save her pet, doesn’t work up much in the way of conflict compared to Charlotte’s desperate efforts and the consequent gentle winning over of the other animals in her barn. Even the incipient romance between Fern and a boy in her class at the local county fair is lifeless compared to Templeton indulging in an orgy of junk food at same locale.
This is a tale that survives the move from page to screen with its sense of enchantment intact, sweetly extolling the virtues of friendship and keeping promises, but it’s also one that is forthright about the realities of farm life, and by extension life itself being part of a cycle that includes death. Fern may be cradling the newborn Wilbur at the breakfast table as she gives him a bottle, but her mother is dishing up a plate of bacon for her at the same time. It’s a shame that children have to find out that those they love won’t live forever, but discovering it through Charlotte’s lessons to Wilbur is as painless process as is likely to be found. The dangers to the sweet little pig, from abandonment to smoked ham, are made all too real, and perhaps too frighteningly for younger kids, but CHARLOTTE’S WEB, while not a perfect adaptation of the classic book, is one that pulls all the right heartstrings while never talking down to its audience.