Since it was first published in 1952, author E.B. White’s kiddy opus Charlotte’s Web has been translated into 23 languages and sold more than 45 million copies. It is the best-selling children’s paperback of all time. Safe to say, then, that a large chunk of the current American population has grown up reading Charlotte’s Web.
Even among kiddy lit classics, however, Charlotte’s Web holds a special place. Any kid who’s ever read it (not to mention any parent who’s used it as a bedtime story) has bawled their eyes out at the book’s tear-jerking climax. That makes it an especially touchy subject for cinematic adaptation. Everyone knows the story by heart. Screw with it too much, and they’ll notice. Everyone also remembers how the book made them feel. Get the emotions wrong, and they’ll know. Fortunately, Paramount Pictures’ new live-action adaptation of Charlotte’s Web demonstrates a healthy amount of respect for its source material.
Initially, the film can’t help but feel familiar in the wake of the two, much-loved Babe films. Those cinematic gems pretty much pioneered the live-action talking pig genre. Charlotte’s Web follows their example to a T--right down to filming in picturesque rural Australia. This film does, however, have the strength of a very popular book behind it--not to mention one of the most top-heavy superstar voice casts in recent memory.
The film opens with plucky young farm gal Fern (the ubiquitous Dakota Fanning) witnessing the birth of runty porker Wilbur. Rather than allow her father to kill the pint-sized pig, Fern volunteers to raise him herself by hand. For a time, Fern treats him like a baby--feeding him with a bottle and pushing him around in a stroller. But when he becomes too big to live in the house, mom and dad insist he be moved into the barn of Fern’s neighboring uncle, Mr. Zuckerman.
Once placed among his fellow animals, the naïve little pig (voiced by up-and-coming rugrat Dominic Scott Kay) gets a firsthand schooling in the true nature of farms--namely, that most animals are there to be killed and eaten. Especially pigs. Instead of making himself useful like Babe did, Wilbur hires himself an eight-legged PR agent.
The barnyard itself is a who’s who of celebrity voice talent. Giving life to various animals are Oprah Winfrey, Steve Buscemi, Robert Redford, Kathy Bates, Reba McEntire, André Benjamin, Thomas Hayden Church and Cedric the Entertainer. Julia Roberts is there too, of course, voicing the wise and titular spider Charlotte. Feeling sorry for the cute little porker, Charlotte devises a plan to save him from the smokehouse by scrawling affirmational messages in her webs. It’s an odd plan, really, but it works.
The film’s storyline follows that of the novel closely. Thankfully, the film doesn’t try to hammer home any forceful, PETA-approved message. The book provides a valuable lesson about the inevitability of life and death, and the film doesn’t sidestep that issue.
There are a couple additional characters and several more fart jokes than in White’s version, but all are acceptable enough for modern audiences. The voice cast is sometimes too self-conscious to mesh seamlessly into the film. (Julia whispers too portentously and Oprah sounds like she’s reading cue cards to 3-year-olds.) The animals are cute, though, the kids will laugh at the garbage-loving rat and everybody in the audience will burst out crying by the end. That’s pretty much all you can ask from a film of this stripe. In other words: That’ll do, pig. That’ll do.