If the new G-rated, squeaky-clean, live action version of E.B. White’s book Charlotte’s Web were graded solely on its lack of offensive material, it would get an A . Unless you’re offended by burp and fart jokes; and if so, and you have small children, good luck with that.
The story concerns a spring pig, named Wilbur (voice by Dominic Scott Kay), who is the runt of the litter. He is saved from the frying pan by Fern Arable (cute Dakota Fanning), who admonishes her father for wanting to kill something just because it’s small. If she were small at birth, would he have killed her? When we had the story read to us as kids, we probably thought Fern’s logic was iron-clad then, too. Part of the story’s magic is how strange and desperately unfair the adult world seemed, while a farm filled with talking animals was just as it should be.
Unfortunately, this New Englandy film farm has had the life-and-death sanitized right out of it. It’s always sun-kissed, and the backlit Arables look like their clothes just arrived from Eddie Bauer. Even the mud looks clean. The animals are always framed in medium shots or close-ups of no interest, and the wall-to-wall music works overtime to keep things generic. You keep expecting the logo of a prescription antihistamine to dominate the screen.
Things perk up a bit when Charlotte the spider arrives, and hatches a plan to save Wilbur by spinning superlatives in her web. Apart from the fact that her two largest eyes look kind, Charlotte, rendered by computer graphics, looks like a spider. Exactly like a big — fat — hairy — spider. The horse faints, and when Charlotte gets a close-up, I saw his point. The edginess is welcome, but it doesn’t build to anything. Julia Roberts does the voice, much too sweet, as if making up for Charlotte’s ghastly looks, when in fact she should have played up the prickly intelligence. For a spider, she’s bloodless.
The 1973 cel-animated version of this story was cheaply done, but a couple of the songs were catchy, and there was a great turn by Paul Lynde as Templeton the Rat. This time, Templeton is voiced by Steve Buscemi, which is solid gold casting. But what’s he supposed to do with a screenplay that has him say "I guess the yolk’s on me"? Maybe the kids haven’t heard that one, but can you imagine the Muppet Show without the irony? In fact, all the celebrities lending their voices – from John Cleese to Reba McIntyre – are perfectly cast, but they have nothing to work with.
So will kids like the movie? I suspect they’ll watch it, then move on to the next thing. We didn’t need Animal Farm , but look what a dash of darkness did for Babe , which casts a shadow over this film at all times. What’s missing here is the personality.
This and other theater and music reviews can be read, listened to, or podcast by visiting wfiu.org. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.