Charlotte’s Web (2006)
Starring: Julia Roberts, Dakota Fanning, Steve Buscemi, Dominic Scott Kay, John Cleese, Oprah Winfrey, Cedric the Entertainer, Kathy Bates, Reba McEntire, André Benjamin, Thomas Haden Church, Robert Redford, Sam Shepard
Directed by: Gary Winick
As with last year’s Christmas-released movie based on a beloved children’s classic book I came into the Charlotte’s Web movie without having read the original work, and thus had no particular nostalgic attachment to the material. Thus, this is not a review of how well Gary Winick has adapted E.B. White‘s beloved tale, and rather an examination on the movie on its own.
Now you may question why I even bothered seeing the movie at all, as I have no children to use as an excuse (unless, of course, you have no idea who I am and were assuming I had kids or something). Three reasons: one, I was in a city with a limited number of screens and had already seen four other movies (not much else to do there but go to movies), two, my wife kinda wanted to see it, and three, I love the movie Babe and was hoping this could recapture some of the magic of that film.
In some ways, it’s unfair to compare Charlotte’s Web to Babe, as Babe undoubtedly owes some of its story and ideas to White’s book. That said, this movie? Is no Babe. It’s not a bad little movie, and is probably perfect for its intended audience, but it doesn’t transcend that audience enough to be considered more than average.
The main problems I had with the movie were its theme and the voice-over performances. As for the theme, I have no idea of it was a lack of focus in the movie, or the original story, but I suspect that it’s the blame of Winick and company. The way they tell the story, it’s hard to understand why such a big deal is made of Wilbur the pig (Dominic Scott Kay), when the stars of the story seem to be Charlotte the spider (Julia Roberts) and Templeton the Rat (Steve Buscemi). I get that the theme they were trying to push was that Wilbur was so special and inspiring that he bonded the creatures together so that they’d go to extraordinary lengths to help him, but the movie didn’t really do a good job of showing that to me. Instead, I was always wondering “some pig? How about some spider?”.
As for the voice performances, they’re indicative of a problem I have with most animated/voice-overed movies to have come out over the past decade or so. They’ve pushed out all the professional voice-over actors and stuffed the movies with celebrity voices who are looking for a quick way to stay in the public eye without having to deal with a rigorous shooting schedule/looking for a fast buck/doing a movie for their kids to see. Too often, these actors don’t give very strong performances, sounding like they might be reading the script for the first time when the director started recording. I understand that part of the problem might be that the celebrity is hired for their particular voice/shtick, and thus they are reluctant to change up their tone, but that’s what’s needed to craft an interesting character with your voice.
For the most part, the voice acting in Charlotte’s Web is uninspired, by-the-numbers type of approaches. The stand out is ten-year-old Kay as Wilbur, but of course, maybe that’s Kay’s normal voice (still, it’s not Kay’s only voice-over work). At least the movie didn’t go the Dreamworks route and try to make the barnyard animals look like their matching celebrity (other than maybe Kathy Bates as Bitsy the Cow, hey-oh!).
All in all, while its not a superb movie, it’s still pretty charming, and should be about what you’d expect from a family film featuring talking animals. Really, seeing a baby pig be all adorable and stuff for an hour and a half is probably enough for what it is (naturally, watching Wilbur interact with Dakota Fanning‘s Fern made me miss my puppy like hell). The message, while muddled, about learning to appreciate what you have and finding what’s special inside of others is a positive one for kids. An all in all decent family film.