Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Charlotte's Web

CHARLOTTE'S WEB (Gary Winick, 2006)

E.B. White's classic children's book CHARLOTTE'S WEB and the 1973 animated film get a CGI polish for this live-action version. Farm girl Fern (Dakota Fanning) saves the runt of the litter from the ax when she promises her father to take care of the tiny pig. She names him Wilbur and totes him around like those little dogs that fashionistas carry as accessories.

Although small, Wilbur (voice of Dominic Scott Kay) becomes too big to keep around the house, so Fern must take him nearby to stay in her uncle's barn. The animals there are not inclined to play with the enthusiastic little pig, and they certainly do not want to break the news to him that the spring pig will not see the winter snow.

Wilbur finds a friend in Charlotte the Spider (voice of Julia Roberts), and what a fine friend she is. When Templeton the Rat (voice of Steve Buscemi) informs Wilbur that he is intended for the Christmas dinner table, Charlotte works to ensure that her friend will be around for many winters to come.

I've grown tired of the loud and crass films that pass as children's entertainment, so it's wonderful to come upon a gentle film like CHARLOTTE'S WEB that values storytelling over spectacle and selflessness over self-centeredness. Director Gary Winick paints the film with picture book colors and populates it with adorable talking animals. Aside from a flatulence joke or two, this is a film rooted in traditional kids' literature without coarsening, dumbing down, or modernizing.

Kids (and adults) may be diverted for awhile by whiz-bang effects, but in the end nothing can grab attention like an enchanting story. White's timeless book deserves a great deal of the credit, but screenwriters Susannah Grant and Karey Kirkpatrick have done an excellent job in keeping the adaptation clean and simple. CHARLOTTE'S WEB is a beautiful tale of friendship that spoons out the virtues of kindness and generosity without a medicinal taste. The characters and the film are invested with common decency, but the film is anything but stodgy. There are many funny moments, such as Wilbur's insistent attempt to get out of the pen, that lighten the heavier themes.

CHARLOTTE'S WEB is also about death being a part of life. The scenes that illustrate this lesson won't leave a dry eye in the house. The last fifteen to twenty minutes of the film are a masterful tearjerking demonstration that brings the end of one character and a sad yet joyful beginning for some new ones. The pivotal conversation cuts between the characters, getting slightly closer each time, until the emotional charge is almost too much to bear. It's presented in a matter-of-fact manner yet is as moving as anything I've seen on film all year. Although happy, the denouement is shattering, not from any big gestures but rather from the delicacy with which Winick makes the point. Parents may be hit harder than children, who may wonder why the adults are getting choked up, but the film opens a door to talk about a difficult issue for kids to understand.

The voicework is first-rate, particularly Roberts' sensitive embodiment of Charlotte. She delivers her lines with quiet, dignified grace, transforming the creature with a scary exterior into something extraordinarily lovely because of what's inside. Kay is very good too as the humble pig. He brings the right amount of youthful optimism and energy to the part. Thomas Haden Church and André Benjamin add humor as the voices of scarecrow-fearing crows.

Humility is a valued trait in CHARLOTTE'S WEB, but there's nothing untoward about the rest of us praising this film's greatness. CHARLOTTE'S WEB has heart and intelligence, qualities that combine for a transcendent time at the movies.

Grade: A

2 comments:

  1. I have to agree. This was a gentle film: perfect fare for my three-year-old daughter's first trip to the theater to see a film. By the way, her parents liked it too.

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  2. I was worried when I heard there was a new adaption coming out. I have to say I felt it did the book justice, and that certainly says a lot :)
    Matt

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