Charlotte's Web

dir: Gary Winick
[img_assist|nid=856|title=Wholesome, earnest, pure, sickening|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=300|height=456]
The prospect of watching a new, big-budget version of a children’s classic is quite daunting. The big budget means they have to cater to the widest of wide and low-brow audiences, and the ‘classics’ origins means they’re either going to offend the purists or bore the unwashed who are also unread.

And Charlotte’s Web hardly needed to be made. Sure, the cartoon from the 70s wasn’t exactly gold, but director George Miller pretty much remade Charlotte’s Web a bunch of year’s ago and called it Babe to much acclaim.

That being the case, the film Charlotte’s Web is most reminiscent of, of course, is Babe. It has the same use of CGI mouths for talking animals, and a bunch of humans in key roles as well. What it has on top of that is a lot of celebrity voices meant to make audiences “Awww” instead of going “eh”.

Could Charlotte’s Web not have been made without the voices of Julia Roberts, Oprah Winfrey, Robert Redford, John Cleese, Steve Buscemi et al? Was anyone staring at a poster for this film and thinking, “this is going to be crap, I’m not taking the squealing piglets along to this”, then saw the list of people supplying wise cracks and thought “Wow, how wrong was I, it has celebrity voices! I’m taking everyone I know and their dog to see this one now?”

Sure, sure, it’s just window-dressing, it does bug me a bit though. Especially since to even get to watch this movie, I had to sit through the trailers for the next crop of CGI animated movies which all trumpet the list of celebrity voices as if any of that matters. Do I care that Hugh Jackman is supplying the voice to a tuxedo-wearing rat, or that some other Friends has-been is supplying some other rat voice in some other virtually identical animated movie?

This is the purest form of marketing: how to differentiate your product which is identical to the products around it by emphasising some intangible and ultimately meaningless element.

Oh, whatever, I could ramble on about the depressing downward slide and saturation of animated flicks for pages and pages, delighting my three or four readers ever so much.

What people really want to know is how closely this film matches the classic children’s book by E.B. White, and whether it’s tolerable for both adults and the kids who they bring along to the cinema. Truth be told, I don’t really think it is.

I am one of the audience members who read the book (and had the book read to them) as a child. I cried at the end, as every child with a soul did. And in a way I’m nostalgic enough about the book to enjoy watching a decent re-telling of it. But I can pretty safely say I don’t think the kids of today are interested.

The kids of today, tatterdemalions and rapscallions to a child, in the cinema I saw this in, were bored out of their freaking little minds. I asked the nephew I’d watched the flick with at the end if he liked it, and, after a suitably long pause, he said “yes” in the most bored sounding voice possible. And this kid is seven, and neither overly bright nor overly dumb, not overly excitable nor unusually docile.

The other kids there were not, in any way, riveted to their seats. For some reason, hearing Reba MacIntyre, Oprah Winfrey or Cedric the Entertainer voice the lame lines given to some of the animals didn’t really do much for them.

They do manage to get the look right, at least. Filmed in some unassuming hamlet around Melbourne, meant to stand in for rural Maine in the 50s, presumably, they make it look more like the era of the book than a contemporary version of it. So visually it’s pretty good.

Dakota Fanning plays the little girl Fern who falls in love with the runt of the litter, Wilbur. Fanning, who to me looks like what would have happened if the Roswell aliens (sometimes called Greys) were cross-bred with humans, is a decent child actress and is fine in the role. She’s not written or acted as an overly precocious kid, just as one old enough to be aware of the darkness inherent in life, but young enough to want to fight it.

For all her loving care of Wilbur, and all the time she spends with him, the majority of the flick seems to transpire in a barn where all the animals can talk. Once a shy, fearful Wilbur is put in the barn, he keeps getting taunted with the fact that he is soon to end up as a meal on someone’s plate.

The lone voice of comfort comes from Charlotte, voiced ably by Julia Roberts (it hurts to type that), a spider who befriends Wilbur and is determined to save him from the regular fate of spring pigs. She intends to see to it that he will see the snows of winter, and sets about putting her plan into action.

So Death is kept at bay, at least for a while. The spectre of the smokehouse looms alongside everything, situated as it is adjacent to the barn. With every new attempt to safeguard Wilbur, it looks ever likely that he will go the way of all ham.

The adults, in the form of Fern’s dad or her uncle Wilbur, aren’t villains; the various farmers are just doing what they do as part of their everyday lives. This is life and death on the farm, the only difference is that we, whether kids or adults, are expected to want Wilbur to escape his destiny with the dinner table because we like him and he’s nice.

This is a story about both raging against the dying of the light, and also realising that death is a fundamental part of life. Anyone over a certain age knows this, of course: the older we get the more people we lose, some when their time has come, others arising out of random happenstance. But for kids the subject is a difficult one. If they’re not taught about death in the right way, they could become fixated on it. And become progressively obsessed with it. And end up goths, or something.

Such a fate should be avoided at all costs. Charlotte’s Web is a way of easing kids into appreciating the cycle of life without having to make them sit through the Lion King. But, as I said previously, I think the film works best with nostalgic adults rather than with kids, which explains why the film was box office poison.

The narrative isn’t strong or consistent enough to remain compelling, and the adherence on distracting and superfluous gags, whilst funny in some instances, makes the story a bit of a mess.

Ask a kid (like I did) what they liked about it, and they say they liked the crows (who hanker for corn, but are too scared of the scarecrow guarding the fields) and the rat Templeton (voiced by Steve Buscemi). Ask them about the spider and the pig and they barely know what you were talking about.

It does suffer in comparison with Babe, but that’s all right, isn’t it? It’s reasonably faithful without being slavish, and improves the further it goes on. It’s probably not the memorable ‘classic’ the makers would hope for, but then taken out of its book context and splayed across the screen, it comes across as almost too light, and as thin as tissue paper.

That doesn’t stop it from being sweet, sometimes beautiful and even moving.

7 times I had to fight my powerful strong arachnophobia to keep watching the screen out of 10

“You’ve chosen a hallowed doorway in which to spin your webs. This was your mother’s doorway. She was loyal, brilliant and beautiful, and she was my friend. So to you, her daughters, I pledge my friendship forever.” – these are beautiful words, Charlotte’s Web.