Film Review: "Charlotte's Web"

by Rick Rockwell

How can a staunch advocate for free speech become a censor? Turn that person into a parent.

At least that’s what I’ve discovered.

Parents aren’t censors? Really? They often decide which television shows are appropriate for the family living room. They screen the books and magazines of their children. Today, they even decide which DVD gets played in the family mini-van. (No mini-van here, so don’t look this way. Not yet, at least.) And of course, they pick out which films their children will see in the theater.

Society has decided such censorship is responsible and sensible. No argument on that score. But parents are censors nonetheless. One can only hope to become a benign censor when thrust into that role.

Which brings us, finally, to Charlotte’s Web.

When selecting the film for a certain three-year-old’s first theater experience, this is the film that got the nod. Thankfully, it was a great choice.

If a film can hold a three-year-old’s attention for most of 97 minutes, while both evoking laughter and thoughtful questions, then it has done its job. And it has one more task: make the experience pleasant for the parents. Charlotte’s Web performed its magic on that level too.

The computer-generated effects are a true wonderment. The world that E.B. White created in his book from the 1950s comes to life in ways that are much better than pure animation. White’s story is the bedrock and screenwriters Susannah Grant (who also penned Erin Brockovich) and Karey Kirkpatrick (James and the Giant Peach) do a good job of providing new patter for the barnyard assembly, the film’s Greek Chorus. The cows (voiced by Kathy Bates and Reba McEntire) get the best lines. Their interactions with Templeton the Rat (voiced by Steve Buscemi) provide some of the funniest moments, including a particularly odiferous joke that luckily wafted past the three-year-olds in the audience without much notice.

Buscemi seems to relish his role at Templeton, which comes through in the strongest voice-over performance in the film: the rat always seems to steal the limelight in the filmed adaptations of this story. But Cedric the Entertainer’s work (he is also known as Cedric Kyles) as Golly the Goose, and John Cleese’s performance, as Samuel the Sheep, are also notable.

The supporting cast’s moments shine through because the headliners underplay and let the story work. Dakota Fanning stars as Fern, the little girl who is the first to promise to save Wilbur the Pig. There’s no need for her to display her complex acting chops in this simple story (and act rings around her co-stars like she did to Tom Cruise in War of the Worlds). And if Julia Roberts sounds a bit bored as Charlotte, she at least knows she needs to get out of the way of the special effects.

The film has gathered mix reviews elsewhere (some apparently prefer the schmaltzy Hanna-Barbera version from 1973) and pulled in more than $11 million at the U.S. box office, placing it third last weekend.

For parents looking for an ideal children’s film though, you can’t do much better. Here’s a G-rated film that discusses loyalty, friendship, and the importance of keeping a promise. Finally, there’s another one of White’s themes that shines through: with the right words you can save the world. Indeed.

(Promotional poster from Paramount Pictures. See below for the film's trailer.)

For other posts on children's media, please see:
Films: They Don't Make 'em Like These Anymore;
The New TV Landscape; and
Generation HP.

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