Fern Arable (Dakota Fanning) wakes up one night and rushes out to the barn to watch the pig take care of her new babies. Her dad (Kevin Anderson) picks up a runt and an ax and heads towards the door. Shocked, Fern pleads for the little pigs life and nurses him along, taking him everywhere with her. A few weeks later, Mom (Essie Davis) and Dad insist Fern take the pig over to her Uncle’s barn, across the road. She can still visit him everyday, but they need to concentrate on the harvest and don’t have animals anymore. In his new home, Wilbur (Dominic Scott Kay) misses Fern, but he soon meets the other animals; Samuel the sheep (John Cleese), Gussy and Golly the geese (Oprah Winfrey, Cedric the Entertainer), Bitsy and Betsy the cows (Kathy Bates, Reba McEntire), Ike the horse (Robert Redford) and Templeton the rat (Steve Buscemi) who delights in the new pig’s slop providing him with a new food source. But the animals are too wrapped up in their own concerns and Wilbur is lonely. Soon, a spider named Charlotte (Julia Roberts) appears and befriends Wilbur who soon learns of his fate, the smokehouse for Christmas. But Charlotte is determined to help change Wilbur’s fate.
“Charlotte’s Web”, based on the classic children’s book by E. B. White, was previously made as a fully animated film. In this new version, all of the animals are animated using CGI, but they live in Fern’s real, idealized, world. The look of the film is the best part of the project.
Dakota Fanning is a good choice for this role, she's a good choice to appear in any kid's role. She is a very good actress and brings a lot of depth and interest to every role she has appeared in. As Fern, she makes us believe in the little girl's quest to keep this pig alive and we believe how close they become.
The mix of CGI animals in a live action world works because the filmmakers have gone to great lengths to make the film seem like a storybook. The first few frames show the credits against graphic images, which could be cutouts from a picture book. Slowly, the film dissolves into live action. When the animals first appear, and begin talking, we buy into this. It works.
As Wilbur makes himself at home and meets all of the other animals, we get a picture of what life is like on this farm. With such a large cast of voice actors, some of the performances are naturally better than others. Julie Roberts, who plays Charlotte, is the least successful. If she reads children's books to her own children in the same way, she must have a terrible time getting them to sleep. She reads the lines in a very modulated way, varying her delivery very little, showing almost no emotion. In short, she is boring. When a name actor like Roberts takes on a role like this, they should try to make it interesting or fun. Instead, Roberts seems to be merely reading her lines. Her talents would be better doing the narration.
That said, Sam Shepherd provides the narration and his soft, folksy voice proves to be the perfect accompaniment to the story.
The most successful voice actor is Steve Buscemi as Templeton the rat. He goes the furthest towards establishing a real character; Templeton is a rat and looks out for himself, first and foremost, and Buscemi gets this across with his acting and the dialogue. It is also believable when he starts to become a part of Wilbur’s defacto posse. Thomas Haden Church and Andre Benjamin play a pair of crows who are constantly in fear of that guy who appears in every cornfield, the scarecrow. They add a nice jolt of comic relief every time they pop up. John Cleese has some fun as Samuel the sheep, who constantly berates the other sheep for following along, lock step, with no thought of their own. Oprah Winfrey and Cedric the Entertainer play a pair of geese who are interesting but ultimately forgettable. Reba McEntire and Kathy Bates play a pair of cows. I still haven’t figured out why Bates has to mimic McEntire’s speech pattern, but I guess the cows have to have to a unified country accent. Robert Redford voices the cantankerous horse Ike. He does a better job than you might think or expect.
“Charlotte’s Web” is one of my favorite childhood books and any film would have a long way to go to approach the classic book. This film doesn’t do it, but it does approach the tone of the book more closely than the fully animated version. The combination of Fanning, the realistic animated animals and the picture book settings work in the film’s favor. If only the name actors had been more consistent and better in their work of bringing these animals to life.
As I watched this new version of the story, I didn’t think I was getting as wrapped up in the story as I was, but at the pivotal moment, the waterworks sure started.
“Charlotte’s Web” will keep very young children entranced. Hopefully, they will be encouraged to read the classic book by E.B. White. The parents will squirm in their seats.