Movie Review: Charlotte’s Web

My lovely wife wrote this one. She’s good.

“Charlotte’s Web,” the live-action adaptation of E.B. White’s classic 1952 children’s novel, features not one, not two, but three talented performers in roles they were born to play.

Exhibit A: Julia Roberts, herself a new mother, voices the role of Charlotte, the kindly grey spider who befriends Wilbur – a young pig destined for the smokehouse – and devises a plan to save his life. Despite their differences in size and species, Charlotte acts as a surrogate mother to the lonely piglet, and her soothing tones help assuage his fears about the realities of farm life. All the same, Charlotte is no June Cleaver; her buttery voice belies a boundless reservoir of spunk – and it is that quality, as much as her kindness and ingenuity, that endears her to audiences. Roberts embodies these traits effortlessly, and turns a bloodsucking creepy-crawly into a creature of true beauty.

Exhibit B: Steve Buscemi, the go-to guy for shady low-life types, voices Templeton the rat. He eats pig slop. He lives in a dank hole littered with pilfered garbage. He looks out for no one but himself. Who better to voice this role than the guy who “doesn’t tip,” and who once found himself in the business end of a woodchipper? Buscemi’s voice is just as wheedling and squirmy as the rodent he portrays onscreen, sight and sound melding into a CGI character that is as real as any other in the film. Saddled with a few groaner punch lines early on, Buscemi overcomes the material and fully inhabits his character’s filthy heart…even granting it a flickering hint of redemption.

Exhibit C: Dakota Fanning, youngest-ever member of the Academy, all-around box-office ass-kicker, and source of deep insecurity among actresses 10 and 20 years her senior, plays the key human character in the story, young Fern Able. It is Fern who first rescues Wilbur from an untimely death, convincing her father not to kill the runt of the litter, and it is Fern who comes to visit Wilbur at her uncle’s farm every day once the pig has grown too big to live in her own home. While Fern’s role in the book is more pivotal than it is in the movie, and in any case is not nearly as interesting as most of the non-human characters in the story, what’s important is this: it’s the lead onscreen role in one of the most beloved children’s books of all time. Dakota Fanning is the right age, the right gender, has a staggering level of box office clout – and is actually a good actress, to boot. Seldom do the stars align so perfectly.

And speaking of stars: the rest of the talent involved are no slouches, either. The pedigreed cast rounding out the barnyard includes such luminaries as Oscar winners Robert Redford and Kathy Bates, plus Oprah Winfrey as fussy goose Gussy. John Cleese brings his stiff upper lip to the role of Samuel, the sheep who would be more than just a follower, and Thomas Haden Church provides great comic relief as one of the few new characters in the movie, a crow named Brooks who is constantly thwarted in his quest for corn.

Ironically, despite their already talent-stacked deck, Paramount apparently pressured the film’s producers to land a “name” actor to voice the central role of Wilbur. Instead, they wisely went with Dominic Scott Kay…and the film is better off for it. Placing an unknown in the role of the youngster in jeopardy gives the character an extra layer of vulnerability – especially when surrounded, as he is, by older and more established talent. Kay gives Wilbur just the right mix of youthful exuberance, naiveté, and trepidation, and creates a character audiences can’t help rooting for – no matter how much they might love bacon.

When casting choices this magical are combined with an endearing, enduring classic, the result can only be described with a word that appears in one of Charlotte’s miraculous webs: terrific.

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)
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