E.B. White’s book, Charlotte’s Web, is a genuine classic for readers of any age, a beautifully written literary novel about loyalty and loss, friendship and the importance of a perfectly chosen word.
The book began with a little girl named Fern rescuing a runt of a pig her father intended to kill. She names him Wilbur and bottle feeds him until he is too big to live at home and then brings him to her uncle’s farm. At this point, at the end of Chapter One, she pretty much exits the story, and the primary characters for the rest of the book are Wilbur and his best friend, a spider named Charlotte.
The movie follows this story with a couple of changes geared to marketing, not story-telling. First, if a studio is lucky enough to grab the number one box office actress in the country, she cannot disappear from the movie after the first fifteen minutes, so Fern, played by Dakota Fanning, gets an expanded role. Second, the focus-group types at the studio decided that E.B. White somehow overlooked the importance of and boy-girl romance (gently inserted) and potty humor (not-so-gently inserted).
The voice talent seems selected for marquee value rather than the ability to create a character on voice alone. Julia Roberts is fine as Charlotte, Steve Buscemi is just right as Templeton the Rat, but the standout is Thomas Hayden Church as a crow. Most of the others are flat or distracting. But the power of the story retains its genuine magic and, like Fern, audiences will find this barnyard a place they want to stay.
Parents should know that the theme of the movie concerns pigs getting slaughtered. This issue is presented gently, but it may be disturbing for some children. There is also a very sad death of a major character. There is some potty humor and some slapstick peril.
Families who see this movie should talk about why Wilbur was important to Fern and why Charlotte wanted to be his friend. Why was Wilbur friendlier than the other animals? Families should also talk about why Charlotte’s work made people think it was the pig who was special, while no one paid any attention to the spider.
Families who enjoy this movie might also enjoy the earlier animated version, with the voice of Debbie Reynolds as Charlotte. And every family should read the wonderful book. Families will also enjoy Babe.