The special effects are so seamless in the new live-action version of “Charlotte’s Web” that you might overlook how flat some of the performances are, and how the story doesn’t quite come together the way it should, and how some of the secondary characters barely register. You really might!
Set in a vague, wholesome past resembling the 1950s (when E.B. White’s beloved children’s book was written), this is a faithful adaptation of the novel — or, at least, of the 1973 animated film version, which I confess is far more vivid in my memory, possibly because it had songs. The new one is song-free, but I definitely recognized some of the dialogue as identical. The only real concession to modernism is that two fart jokes have been introduced, in accordance with new laws stating that all children’s films must have fart jokes.
I will assume that you know the story and summarize it only briefly: A runt pig named Wilbur (voice of Dominic Scott Kay) fears he will not survive the winter on the farm, given the farmer’s fondness for pork products. To save his life, a kindly spider named Charlotte (Julia Roberts) spins words into her web, dazzling the humans and convincing them that Wilbur must be Some Pig indeed.
(I never got this, by the way. So the web says “Some Pig.” My reaction to that wouldn’t be to admire the pig being referenced, but to marvel at the spider who can speak and write English.)
Wilbur is the grateful recipient of Charlotte’s P.R. work, and so is Fern (Dakota Fanning), the little girl who befriended him when he was a piglet. The Fern character is not as useful here as she ought to be. Serious li’l thespian Dakota Fanning plays her waaaay too intense and sober, with no emotional connection to Wilbur at all. When later scenes try to show Fern becoming less of a tomboy and getting a crush on a boy, the only response I can muster is: I don’t care. Fern who?
There is curiously little reason for the barn’s supporting players, either. The geese, cows, sheep, and horse all crack a few jokes, exhibit disdain for the creepy spider, and ultimately express gratitude for the positive change Wilbur has brought to their lives — but there’s no support for that. Save for a couple lines about the animals never appreciating the sunset until Wilbur pointed it out, there’s no indication that he’s affected their lives at all. Were they sad and bitter before? Did they mope around the barnyard counting the days until their deaths? We have no idea. We just take the movie’s word for it that Wilbur is awesome and touches the lives of everyone he meets.
With the Wilbur/Fern and the Wilbur/other animals relationships void, that leaves the Wilbur/Charlotte connection to redeem the movie. It’s a little better, but Julia Roberts sounds flat and bored as the magnanimous arachnid, with stilted line readings and little warmth. You’d think an Oscar-winning actress could convey some vitality even in a voice-over project, but apparently not.
And yet, darn it, at the end of the movie — and you know what I’m talking about — well, picture a little girl. Now picture her crying. That’s me. Templeton the rat (Steve Buscemi, the only inspired casting choice in the film) plays a key role, and finally Charlotte and Wilbur’s friendship scores a direct hit. It’s the loveliness of the source material overpowering the mediocre way it’s being told.
This should have been a better film. The director (Gary Winick, “13 Going on 30,” “Tadpole”) knows what he’s doing, and get this: One screenwriter, Susannah Grant, has written chick flicks (“In Her Shoes,” “Erin Brockovich”), while the other, Karey Kirkpatrick, has written kids’ movies (“Over the Hedge,” “Chicken Run”). What better combination could you ask for in a “Charlotte’s Web” adaptation? It’s a beautiful story, rendered only semi-precious in this earnest but flawed re-creation.
C+ (1 hr., 37 min.; )