"Help is coming from above," proclaim the ads for this star-studded retelling of E.B. White's classic children's novel, and if that tagline sounds a little, um, spiritual, it's supposed to. Charlotte's Web is produced by Walden Media, a company dedicated to bringing Christian ideals to mainstream family entertainment, and the same company responsible for promoting their 2005 hit The Chronicles of Narnia to religious groups as the big-budget allegory of our time. This time, they haven't quite turned the beloved tale of an ordinary pig and his talented arachnid friend into a subliminal "Charlotte equals Jesus" morality play. But there is a bland, nicey-nice emphasis on "miracles," "faith" and the "ultimate sacrifice" that might rub some fans of the book the wrong way.
You can tell that the movie's messages are being communicated with a sledgehammer right from the beginning, when the creepily animal-obsessed Fern (Dakota Fanning) runs out in the middle of the night to stop her father (Kevin Anderson) from slaughtering a runt piglet. "If I'd been born small, would you have killed me?" she shrieks. It's not so much the line as it is Fanning's psychotic delivery of it, and that weird, Right to Life bumper sticker quality infects the whole film, no matter how much director Gary Winick tries to lighten the mood with candy-colored, Norman Rockwell-inspired scenes of all-American, apple-pie hominess.
After little Fern has rescued Wilbur from the ax, he's put in the care of her uncle across the way, who sees the pig as a good source of bacon, provided he can get his smokehouse fixed. Once Wilbur's surrounded by his multi-culti barnmates, the human characters recede into the background in favor of CGI-animated animal antics, with voice work from the most expensive stars known to man. If the British sheep sound a little like John Cleese, that's cause they are John Cleese, and if you've always envisioned Cedric the Entertainer and Oprah Winfrey as a bickering geese couple, your dreams will be answered. (The less said about Kathy Bates and Reba McEntire's flatulent cows, the better.) Ultimately, however, Julia Roberts' wan, soothing and utterly lifeless spider Charlotte takes center stage as she attempts to use her webs to show the world the value of the utterly average, "humble" Wilbur (whose voice is provided by child actor Dominic Scott Kay).
The special effects are impressive, but for a movie that's so openly about faith, the filmmakers have put very little in the power of their source material. Steve Buscemi is an inspired choice for the selfish barn rat Templeton, but screenwriter Karey Kirkpatrick has used him as an excuse for a number of busy, elaborate chase scenes that distract from the affecting character drama that makes up the heart of White's novel. Wilbur and Charlotte don't bond in a convincing way, and the odd, wondrous quality of the words she writes in her webs isn't effectively communicated in the animated sequences. Winick has given the film a Tim Burton-esque quality, populating the live-action cast with a number of odd, cartoonish faces that don't get much to do. Obviously, it would be tough for anyone short of Ingmar Bergman to make a children's movie about life, death and the passing on of a legacy. But there's an elegant, modest quality to White's prose that's sorely lacking in this Charlotte's Web.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].