'Charlotte's Web': A Fine-Spun Retelling

The runt you can root for: Fern (Dakota Fanning) bonds with Wilbur (voiced by Dominic Scott Kay) in the gentle  --  and winning  --  new remake of E.B. White's classic tale.
The runt you can root for: Fern (Dakota Fanning) bonds with Wilbur (voiced by Dominic Scott Kay) in the gentle -- and winning -- new remake of E.B. White's classic tale. (By Lisa Tomasetti -- Paramount Pictures)
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 15, 2006

It may not have the perkiness of "Babe," that hoof-warming winner of 1995, but "Charlotte's Web" -- another movie featuring an animatronic pig -- plays to its biggest strength: the magic of a good story simply told.

E.B. White's children's book -- starring Wilbur the curly-tailed runt, his human friend Fern and that spinner of silky acclamations , Charlotte -- has been charming kids into bed since Dwight Eisenhower was president. Those kids, who passed it along to their children, can rest assured the movie, featuring Dakota Fanning and an off-screen cast that includes Julia Roberts, Oprah Winfrey and Robert Redford, shares their reverence.

Produced by Paramount and Walden Media -- the educational multimedia outfit that also brought you "Holes" and "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" -- the movie feels old-fashioned but not dated, savvy but not snarky. Director Gary Winick ("13 Going on 30") seems mostly to have instructed his actors to stay out of the story's way. But even if the performers, at times, sound as if they're doing a casual read-through before the actual show, their relaxed spirit is subtly satisfying. (And frankly, it's a respite not to have the likes of Robin Williams voicing characters in a postmodern fever sweat.) "Charlotte's Web" also bypasses all that riffing and referencing that has become the pop culture uber alles mantra of so many films from Pixar and its various imitators.

There are some of us for whom the mere sight of Fanning evinces a groan -- she's been the go-to Cute Girl for more movies than we'd care to remember. But as Fern, mercifully, she's just right: a sweet-natured, bighearted kid whose only motivation is the well-being of her adopted pet. That Meryl Streep Jr. authority -- the young actress's frosty professionalism, which has made us wonder if she's actually experienced childhood -- stays dormant. Instead, we delight in her disarmingly funny moments -- literally trying to keep the lid on her rambunctious piglet in class or wheeling him around town in a pram. She's a girl again.

We'd like to point out -- before we give the impression "Charlotte's Web" will induce audiences to slumber -- that Wilbur and his barnyard friends move with the same snappy fluidity of Babe and his counterparts. We enjoy snouts, maws and jaws moving in perfect sync with human words -- it's as though we're watching live-action cartoons. And it's fun to watch Wilbur splashing in mud puddles or trying repeatedly to ram a wooden fence with the slapstick resilience of a Keystone Kop. The animatronic style is a cut above those flicks of yore in which animals did the walking while off-screen humans did the talking (remember the 1973 musical version of "Charlotte's Web" featuring the voices of Debbie Reynolds as Charlotte and Paul Lynde as Templeton the rat?). This version feels almost quaint, practically hands-on, in light of the computer-generated thrill rides that dominate most animation films.

That's no shortcoming -- quite the opposite, in fact. The lack of technological fireworks gives audiences the opportunity to concentrate on the integrity of the story, in which farm girl Fern saves Wilbur -- the unwanted 11th pig of a 10-teated mom. And it better highlights the story's thoughtful themes: Charlotte's justification, for instance, for her killing and, uh, blood-sucking of flies (circle of life, kids) and Wilbur's appreciation of the spider's inner beauty. (To some of us, though, spiders will always be spiders, even if they do talk like Julia Roberts.)

Remember the peaceful atmosphere of bedtime storytelling? The kind that allows parent and child to take satisfaction in the story, not the teller? That's how "Charlotte" draws you into its web.

Charlotte's Web (98 minutes, at area theaters) is rated G.

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