Charlotte's Web Review
On a remote farm owned by Mr Arable (Kevin Anderson), a sow gives birth to a set of piglets. As he and his daughter Fern (Dakota Fanning) watch the piglets tussle with one another for a place to suckle, they notice that there isn't space for one. Mr Arable lifts him out of the hay and tells Fern that this little one is the runt of the litter and that nature, as is its way, has decided that it's not to be. Fern disagrees and, taking the piglet into the house, feeds him with milk from a bottle. As the days pass and Fern even takes the piglet, who she names Wilbur (voice of Dominic Scott Kay), into school - this causes something of a flap - the two become attached to one another with Wilbur remaining of the farm even when the rest of the pigs are sold.
Unfortunately, the Arable farm is too busy for Wilbur to remain on it and he leaves for the Zuckerman farm nearby. Fern visits everyday but in spite of this little bit of sunshine, Wilbur is spooked by a building on the farm that the shadows linger around. What he doesn't know is that this is the slaughterhouse on the farm and that rather than enjoying a long and peaceful retirement, it is intended that he'll be being cured over the winter. At least, Wilbur didn't know that, not until all the other animals on the farm let him know that pigs on farms aren't expected to live for very long. But then Charlotte (Julia Roberts), a spider living on the Zuckerman farm, has a plan to save Wilbur and when the sun sets, something magical happens...
It's a very small niche - a very small niche indeed - but Dakota Fanning has proved a winning lead actress in two films set on farms, first in Dreamer and now in Charlotte's Web, an adaptation of EB White's classic children's story. In Dreamer, a great and unassuming little film about the saving of a racehorse, she was ably supported by Kurt Russell, David Morse, Kris Kristofferson and Elisabeth Shue but here, she's very much on her own, head and shoulders, though not literally so, above the rest of the cast. Granted, she wasn't as strong in War Of The Worlds but she's marvellous here, being an innocent in amongst the two farms, both of whom, no matter the miracles happening on their doorstep, rarely waver from smacking their lips at the taste of bacon. But she and Wilbur are of a kind, having a palpable sense of wonder at the friendship and trust they form between each other.
And miracles do happen in Charlotte's Web. This being a film based on a children's book, it isn't quite as simple as Dakota Fanning being left to defend Wilbur on her own. Instead, she's aided by Charlotte, a friendly spider who's not well liked by the other animals on the farm. During the night and at times when the Zuckerman family are busy sharpening their knives, Charlotte busies herself by spinning a wonderful web, one in which sits a word that only an educated spider might know. The next morning, the Zuckermans put down their knives to marvel at the web and, as the word spreads, to welcome the thousands of people who've arrived to witness this modern-day miracle. But as the leaves turn and the season changes, the visitors to the farm fade away, Wilbur is left on his own again and the Zuckermans prop open the door to their slaughterhouse. With the help of selfish rat Templeton (Steve Buscemi), Charlotte finds yet another word and, once again, gets to spinning a web. Some Pig. Terrific. Radiant. Humble.
Beyond Julia Roberts, Dakota Fanning and Wilbur The Pig, Charlotte's Web is something of a mix of the good and the very, very bad. The live-action cast aren't called upon to do very much - they hover about in the background as did Elizabeth Shue in Dreamer - but they acquit themselves reasonably well, particularly Kevin Anderson, Gary Basaraba and Essie Davis, not to mention Sam Shepherd as the narrator of the film. However, the voice actors who bring life to the farm animals are very much worse. There is yet more evidence of the terrible amnesia borne by John Cleese, who seems to have forgotten a time when his comedy meant something other than playing an officious and overbearing headmaster. Almost everything that Cleese has done in the last decade has been yet another performance of Brian Stimpson from Clockwise and this is no exception with Cleese barely missing a step from his Ape (George Of The Jungle) and King (Shrek) to land in the Zuckerman barn in Charlotte's Web. But Cleese isn't the only low point in the film. Robert Redford makes an ass of himself - not literally - playing Ike The Horse while Oprah Winfrey and Cedric The Entertainer, playing geese, bicker like an old married couple. Which is not a thing that could ever work in a film meant for children, many of whom will be left wondering why two geese are as ill-tempered as their own parents. Thomas Haden Church and Andre Benjamin are much better as a pair of rooks with an appetite for Templeton but their efforts are use too sparingly to balance the likes of Cleese, Redford and, in the absence of his real name, Entertainer.
But these are not the things that you'll remember. Instead, it's a lovely little performance from Dakota Fanning, a warm and loving family home and the passing of some beautiful seasonal settings that are the very best parts of Charlotte's Web. In making so much of the material when others do not, Fanning is clearly the star of the film, not just in her top billing but in lighting up the screen every time she appears. As a reflection of the girls who'll enjoy this most - it's too gentle a tale for the rough and tumble of young boys - she's almost perfect in the part of Fern. Charlotte's Web wouldn't be half the film it is without her.
As well as its star, Charlotte's Web also shares a look with Dreamer, that of summer evenings, bright daylight and long shadows falling over the fields around the Arable and Zuckerman farms. Turning the rule that children care not a jot about the picture quality of their films, this comes with a decent transfer, perhaps less so in the interior shots but coming alive in the external scenes, particularly those in the agricultural show that closes the film. Like Dreamer, there's a very natural look to the film that suits the material, being quite understated a lot of the time. This is also the case with the audio track, which is DD5.1 but it's only the clarity of the sound that gives this away. It's certainly not any extensive use of the rear channels. That said, it does complement the film nicely in that it's a warm track with summer tones underneath the action that befits the slightly nostalgic feel of Charlotte's Web.
Commentaries: There are two included here, one with director Gary Winick and another with producer Jordan Kerner and special effects supervisor John Andrew Berton Jr. There's a lot that the two tracks share, not least that they both dwell on the use of CG in the film - understandably, the latter track has a good deal more effects chatter than that featuring Winick - and though there are some interesting things said about the production, they're two very dry tracks when, had Winick, Kerner and Berton Jr been together, we might have had one, much more interesting commentary.
Making Some Movie (28m48s): For a making of, this doesn't get very involved in the actual film but it's all the better for it, choosing to pick moments, scenes and the general feel of the film to
Some Voices (8m46s): One day, an animated film is going to arrive on DVD without a feature on the voice artists...but Charlotte's Web isn't that one. And so we have Oprah Winfrey, Julia Roberts, Dominic Scott Kay, John Cleese and Cedric The Entertainer - surely there's a question regarding the Trade Descriptions Act in that name - standing around in recording studios talking about their characters. Oprah is, as she always is, perfectly natural but Cleese appears to have remained in character even for this. Prickly school master? It's like he now knows nothing else.
Flack's Pig Tales (11m28s): Flacka was one of the many pigs used in the making of Charlotte's Web and in not being able to tell one from the other, we have the pig in silhouette narrating a making-of that's suitable for children. Flacka describes how the film was made, how the animals were shot for the screen - the best moment is the footage of the animal wranglers dragging a performance out of the creatures - and, finally, some piggy riddles. Why should you not tell a pig a secret? Because it loves to squeal!
How Do They Do That? (4m54s): Speaking of animal wranglers, they're here to tell us some tricks of their trade. Granted, it still looks very hit-and-miss, particularly with the pigs, which makes one wonder if they secretly celebrate a film that calls for dogs cats. And, on the contrary, weep if there's a demand for geese.
What Makes A Classic? (5m20s): Rest easy...this concerns the book and not the film, entertaining though it is. This short feature gives the viewer a short history of EB White, his life, how he came to write Charlotte's Web and how it has been received in the years since its publication.
Where Are They Now? (6m54s): John Cleese? I hear he's playing a headmaster somewhere...oh, the animals. Rather than sending traumatised children into the arms of some dreary and very miserable rock, this feature consoles them by following up on the animals featured in the film and how the many, many pigs are being well looked after on Australian farms. None, it would appear, ended up sliced, fried and between two slices of white bread, which somehow seems inconceivable.
Finally, the many special features rounds off with two music videos - Sarah McLachlan's Ordinary Miracle (3m03s) and Bob Carlisle and Lucy Kane's Make A Wish (3m15s) - as well as a couple of Photo Galleries, a Gag Reel (3m04s) and a set of Deleted Scenes (6m53s) that come with an optional Commentary from director Gary Winick. The only possible exception to this very long list of bonus material is an actual copy of the book but seeing how it features on many primary school reading lists, your children, if you have any, will encounter it eventually.
Charlotte's Web is a surprisingly sad film. Surprising in the sense that I didn't know the EB White book and wasn't aware how it ended. It had my wife and seven-year-old daughter in tears, which shows more than a little connection with the material. Unfortunately, one has to sit through a good deal of not-awfully-funny comedy to settle amongst a cast of humans, piglet and spider its worth caring about but when Charlotte's Web is good, it's something to treasure. It is a pity that there are not enough such moments.