I distinctly remember sitting through George Miller's wonderfully sweet Babe a few years back and thinking "Wow, someone could totally make an excellent movie out of Charlotte's Web with this technology." And while, like millions of you, I grew up adoring the Hanna-Barbera animated version of E.B. White's classic story, the truth is that, well, the book's a whole lot better than the cartoon. (Watch it again, nostalgia-fans, and you'll see what I mean.)
So when I sat down with this all-new feature-length live-action adaptation of Charlotte's Web, I was equal parts excited and skeptical. (I really loved the book when I was a kid.) I'd heard that the flick was originally offered to Tim Burton, but he chose to do Sweeney Todd instead, and that's just as well -- because the director I was mildly cautious about (Gary Winick, Tadpole and 13 Going on 30) turned out to do a bang-up job on Charlotte's Web. Big handshake to writers Karey Kirkpatrick (Over the Hedge) and Susannah Grant (Ever After) for keeping the spirit of White's book alive while tweaking it just enough for our oh-so-modern kiddies.
The story is as simple as it is sweet: A runt piglet is rescued from a quick demise by a lovely young girl named Fern, but when the sweet-natured swine gets a little too big, he's shipped off to a stylishly quaint farmhouse where he meets a whole barnyard full of colorful new friends. The sheep, geese, cows and horses barely approach young Wilbur, as they're well aware what happens to sweet young swine in this particular barnyard (think bacon), but when a kindhearted spider named Charlotte makes Wilbur her new salvage project, well, you and your kids are in for a few sweet lessons about friendship, loyalty, courage and all that important stuff.
Superior to the animated version in virtually every way (plus this new one isn't a musical -- and whether or not that's a good thing is entirely up to you), Winick's Web is precisely what a family flick should be: Sweet, sunny, funny, fast-paced and full of concepts / lessons / ideas that work because they're actually germane to the plot -- and not because the seventh screenwriter on the scene was ordered to "throw in a few morals and life lessons and junk." The special effects employed to bring the barnyard critters to life are both impressive and subtle; combined with a stellar voice cast (more on that in a minute) the FX technicians have managed to take the 'gimmickry' out of their talking animals; the barnyard denizens are actual movie characters, not empty-souled CG displays used to sell paltry pratfalls or deliver facile platitudes.
As far as the ultra-eclectic voice cast is concerned, I was pleasantly surprised by the work offered here. In many cases an "all-star cast" works as a detriment to an animated movie (I'll take Billy West or Frank Welker over Martin Lawrence or Kevin James any day), but here the well-known actors feel right at home. Julia Roberts provides Charlotte with a palpable sense of sweetness and warmth, and the rest of the barn is absolutely stocked with colorful critters. My favorites were John Cleese as a snooty sheep and Robert Redford as an arachnophobic equine ... but Steve Buscemi as Templeton the Rat pretty much steals the whole movie. (Ah, and Thomas Haden Church and Andre Benjamin earn multiple laughs as a pair of amusingly obtuse crows.) The human actors are a comfortably generic lot, although leading lady Dakota Fanning delivers some fine work here. What could have been a "cute-eyed moppet" is instead a "normal kid," albeit one with a sweet disposition and a soft spot for undersized animals.
I'm often accused of being a little rough on family-friendly fare; just yesterday I received a hate-filled email from a parent who now loathes me for not loving High School Musical. But I know a high-end piece of "fun for everyone" filmmaking when I see one, and I think Charlotte's Web is a rare highlight in this generally dismal holiday movie season. The finale might push the sap-meter just a little bit into the red, but by that point I was already charmed by the characters, the animation and the overall tone of the piece. Just a nice sweet family flick, exceedingly well-made and surprisingly witty.