Charlotte’s Web. Julia Roberts, Steve Buscemi, and Essie Davis star in a film written by Susannah Grant and Karey Kirkpatrick and directed by Gary Winick.
Reviewed by D.J. Palladino
Try to watch this film without thinking of Chris Noonan and George Miller’s Babe films. The pig talks. The cows wisecrack and fart. The sheep — led by our own John Cleese, as an elegantly literate and admonishing voice — deliver a conformist chorus. The human actors mix hard-edged realism with the tenderness you expect from a children’s book set on the allegorical family farm. It was even partly made in Australia.
But this is also a classic American novel, and the filmmakers do justice to the perfectly wrought story and ideas behind it. Though made Down Under, it feels like Maine most of the time. It feels like fable, too. E.B. White, the former New Yorker writer beloved by kids and journalists, created this odd mortality parable in a vein Americans ought to understand. Hope in this world is based on doing something that draws the media and a lot of gawking neighbors, a phenomenon that routinely turns wonders into roadside attractions. The two-headed snake, the tortilla Jesus, and the Watts Towers are radiant metaphors for New World possibilities.
White’s book manages to convey all this delirious wonder without avoiding the points of a story based in reality. Charlotte’s nobility, after all, is kindness in the face of doom. But it’s the whimsical fable that wins out in the end, when the baby spiders fly away crying “Whee!” for a pig redeemed.
Dakota Fanning is predictably winning, but the real strength of the film comes from its supporting players. The Arable family, and most poignantly Essie Davis as the mother, glow like paragons of country virtue while suggesting a ruddy sophistication, too.
But the best part is the beauty and economy of Gary Winick’s direction. It’s ample with color and scenery to please grown-ups and weird-funny enough to keep the kids attuned to the American remarkable.