Farm girl Fern Arable (Dakota Fanning) saves little piglet Wilbur from the axe and raises him herself. Before long Fern’s growing pig is sent down the road to her Uncle Zuckerman’s farm, where barnyard animals show no interest in making friends with this year’s Christmas dinner. Poor Wilbur is resigned to his fate, until he finds an unlikely ally in a spider named Charlotte (Julia Roberts). Warm, witty and wise, Charlotte is similarly shunned for being a creepy-crawly, but an enduring friendship blossoms between the pair and she makes it her life’s mission to help Wilbur survive. Aided by reluctant messenger rat, Templeton (Steve Buscemi), Charlotte weaves a succession of phrases like “Some Pig”, “Terrific” and “Radiant” into her web, that townsfolk come to see as a miracle. Wilbur becomes the talk of the town and, thanks to Fern’s quick thinking, is entered at the County Fair. The friends set off on their journey, little realising what lies ahead.
Those who grew up reading E.B. White’s children’s classic know the story works on a surprising number of levels. Combining a gentle satire of small town gullibility, a moving and life-affirming friendship, and a child’s eye view of life, death and the sometimes sad aspects of growing up, it is a fable worthy of Frank Capra. Director Gary Winick pulls off a few visual coups in gradually brightening his colour palette to suggest the warmth slowly spreading across the human and animal communities, and in Charlotte’s beautiful, web-weaving ballet, but races through his storytelling like a man on fire. Events speed by so quickly, leaving little time for magic to seep through.
The simple characterisation of Hanna-Barbera’s 1973 cartoon is much missed amidst an overload of sarcastic, farting CG animals including Robert Redford as a comedy horse, John Cleese as an inexplicably British sheep in Middle America, and Oprah Winfrey and Cedric the Entertainer as bickering geese. Count the amount of recent cartoons to feature an angry, attitude-laden animal voiced by an African-American actor. Such lazy characterisations are fast becoming tedious. Of better value are André Benjamin and Thomas Hayden Church as two starving crows flummoxed by the local scarecrow (“That guy hasn’t moved for six hours!”), and at the risk of sounding unkind, was there ever a more perfect actor to play a self-serving rat than Steve Buscemi? He shines, although Winick only added Templeton cavorting in the fairground after test audiences claimed they missed seeing the “A Fair is A Veritable Smorgasbord” sequence from the Hanna-Barbera version.
In White’s novel, Fern eventually starts to notice boys and forgets all about poor Wilbur. Here, screenwriters keep her devoted even after young love blossoms with an unnamed lad (called Henry Fussy in the book, but the makers seem to think audiences will laugh at his name, which is sad), and give Fern a more active role in proceedings. Thus accommodating a star turn from the ever-endearing Dakota Fanning. Best of all is Julia Roberts, whose warm tones make Charlotte such a winning creation and enliven a film that is never quite as charming as its storybook opening and closing credits.