Every critic has his kryptonite. For some, it’s an earnest, paternal Will Smith; for others, it’s a towheaded tyke with an unusually close relationship with a pet. Since I more or less wrote Smith off after the vile Independence Day but have occasionally embarrassed my little sister by weeping at a showing of, say, Because of Winn-Dixie, I guess it’s clear where my weakness lies. And while any precocious youngster has a fair shot at tapping my hidden vein of sappiness, I must confess that little Dakota Fanning is more adept at it than most. Fanning’s ubiquity and uncannily adult mien have given rise to a fair amount of backlash — some of it promulgated on this very site — but I, for one, remain fully in her thrall. Hollywood has seen plenty of knowing women in little girls’ bodies, from the coquettish Shirley Temple to the cynical, seen-it-all young Jodie Foster, but Fanning is a sui generis phenomenon, seemingly wise and thoughtful beyond her years while maintaining the innocence, simplicity, and clear-eyed ethical consistency of a very, very good little girl. She and her handlers may rule Hollywood with an iron fist, demanding right of first refusal on every worthwhile prepubescent role in town, but I personally wouldn’t have it any other way.
In Charlotte’s Web, Fanning has nabbed the human lead, the role of Fern, a farm girl whose innate sense of social justice drives her to rescue a baby pig, the runt of the litter, who would otherwise be put to death by Fern’s father for the good of his 10 littermates. With more than 45 million copies sold, anyone who grew up in the last half-century has probably read E.B. White’s book or heard it read aloud, so there’s little point in detailing the plot. Suffice it to say that the pig, whom Fern names Wilbur, winds up living on a neighboring farm whose owner has plans for him — plans of a culinary nature — until a kindly spider named Charlotte devises a series of schemes to convince the farmer that Wilbur is no ordinary pig and should be spared the ax once again.
White’s sweet fable about friendship and self-sacrifice was among my favorite books as a child, but looking at it again now, in director Gary Winick’s mostly faithful adaptation, it’s a surprisingly lopsided tale. The unavoidable comparison is to Chris Noonan’s Babe, the 1995 film (undoubtedly influenced by Charlotte’s Web) about a pig spared the slaughterhouse due to his unusual and useful ability to herd sheep. Babe is a pig who earns his life and his keep through determination, perseverance, and hard work; Wilbur, by contrast, deserves to live because he is kind, so very kind that he inspires others to act on his behalf. Kindness, of course, is a virtue all too often undervalued, and one that small children probably should be reminded of as often as possible. Still, for dramatic purposes, it creates an imbalance: Wilbur’s is the life at stake, yet he passively waits for Charlotte and the barn rat Templeton to find a way to save it.
Despite this nagging flaw, you’d have to be pretty heartless not to hope they succeed. As voiced by 10-year-old Dominic Scott Kay, Wilbur has a guileless decency that recalls Christopher Shea, the little boy who voiced Linus in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and who, like Fanning at her best, invariably reduces me to tears with his climactic speech about the true meaning of Christmas. Kay, unfortunately, is one of the few voice actors in the film whose performance adds any real resonance to the story. Julia Roberts’ turn as Charlotte is one of those uninspired, I’m-doing-this- for-my-kids performances that sounds very much as if she’s reading directly from the script, quite possibly for the first and only time, and most of the other stars assaying animal roles (Steve Buscemi, John Cleese, Kathy Bates, Reba McEntire, Oprah Winfrey, Cedric the Entertainer, et al.) provide no more than a hint of familiarity and some occasional comic relief.
Still, Winick does much to capture the wonder and whimsy of White’s book, creating a simpler world in an undefined past where both small creatures and small touches matter. The film’s rural setting has the magic realist quality of a Grant Wood landscape, and its human characters, though sometimes dense and often credulous, aren’t stupid; they’re just decent, unsophisticated folk trying to live their lives the best they can. Though the quality of the computer animation is highly variable, the movie gets the important things right, making Charlotte’s web-spinning a glittery, gorgeous feat and Templeton’s adventures gathering his cast-off treasures both gently amusing and just a little bit disgusting (perhaps as a sop to the little boys in the audience). Winick’s work here — and the work of the animators — is sure, but he muffs the film’s climax by playing up the suspense rather than the pathos, and this imbalance affects the remainder of the film, so that the epilogue feels tacked-on and insignificant.
Really though, the film’s success hinges on how we feel about the protagonists and whether we come to care about Wilbur’s fate, and of these achievements there can be no doubt. As Fern, Fanning is steely and intractable, yet she never seems like a brat; she’s just more sensible and thoughtful than all the adults around her. And the baby pigs that play Wilbur seem — with the help of Kay’s vocal performance — not just cute but warm, vulnerable, and ultimately quite human. We see why Charlotte wants so badly for Wilbur to live to see his first snowfall, and we share in her hopes. If Fast Food Nation didn’t make you a vegetarian, this one just might do the trick.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Charlotte's Web / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | December 16, 2006 | Comments ()