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Published: Friday, 12/15/2006

Movie review: Charlotte s Web ****

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Gentle.

If Charlotte the spider, of the eerie long lashes and dewy doe eyes, with the soothing ambient voice in tones normally reserved for suicide-crisis counseling, if Charlotte the spider had to spin a single word into the web hanging from her barn door, if that word needed to summarize the latest adaptation of her namesake, that word would be ...

Gentle.

Gary Winick s Charlotte s Web is not insistent, and it is not crass at least never at the same time. It is tasteful and warm. It takes the job of adapting E.B. White s 1952 children s classic, arguably the most endearing work of children s literature in the past century it takes this seriously. Perhaps too seriously. Perhaps not enough.

(I flop back and forth.) The opening recalls the lovely, pastoral illustrations from the old book, all watercolors, no hard edges; the mood is vintage Americana, 1950s timeless, with a slight whiff of contemporary life, and the setting is gracefully rolling rural Maine in actuality, a graceful rolling Australia.

It is faithful, reverential.

Toes are walked on tips.

But give a pig a break.

You think Harry Potter fans are hard to please. Try satisfying five decades of parents and children, for whom White s tale of how a spider saved the life of a swine named Wilbur, remains the gold standard for introducing the cycle of life and death, pulling your heartstrings without pushing a button. That it reads like real literature (clean, clear, a sense of humor) is what makes it classic. Winick, however, doesn t merely consider those fans of the book, but the legions of general admirers of E.B. White, whose years at the New Yorker literally defined graceful, clever writing. White was half the team of Strunk and White, whose Elements of Style remains the sturdiest cornerstone on the desk of many an undergraduate, author, and journalist. (And there are those wise souls who read it annually.)

So you d be cautious, too.

Because, besides the anxious fans and the imposing legacy, there s White himself, who died in 1985 and famously hated the first adaptation of Charlotte s Web a 1973 Hanna-Barbera cartoon with Debbie Reynolds as the voice of Charlotte and (seriously) Danny Bonaduce as the brother of Fern, the girl who pleads for the life of a modest pig. That film was so awkward, the posters shouted: The humble radiant terrific book is now a humble radiant terrific movie!

How humble.

In a letter to John Updike, White wrote that after watching Wilbur perform a song and dance, I wanted to run on my sword, but I could not find it. (We ll just be thankful he didn t live long enough to see the frantic kid s commodity Stuart Little, another adaptation of his work.)

Thankfully, Winick s film is not animated but live-action (with a nod to Babe, for its seamless animated animal mouths). It has no songs (the music in the words is plenty). And there are famous people lending their voices to the animals, and a sharp live cast but White s reputation and the book s beloved place presumably allowed for the pick of an A-list litter, not the B-list runts. Dakota Fanning is Fern, whose light lisp and pluck suggest the early stirring of a young girl s big heart. Julia Roberts is Charlotte. Robert Redford is the horse, Oprah Winfrey and Cedric the Entertainer are geese, and John Cleese is a sheep. Wait, there s much more:

Steve Buscemi is pitch perfect as Templeton the Rat, Kathy Bates and Reba McEntire are flatulent cows, while Andre Benjamin (of Outkast) and Thomas Haden Church (of Sideways) are crows.

Smartly, Winick does not spend a lot of time worried that his stellar cast members each get their moment. From the opening narration, pulled directly from the book, the film has a reverence for White s words. At its best, in fact, when you find yourself literally smiling, it s those words, not necessarily the filmmaking:

Charlotte, what s a spring pig? Wilbur asks, and Charlotte answers, Well, a pig born in the spring. To which Wilbur says, Oh, I thought it springs. To which Charlotte replies, her soothing voice clear and precise:

That would be a springy pig.

Not to dwell on this well, you really can t dwell on White s voice enough here. It s sensible and casual, the words hardly landing at all, then sneaking up with a lyrical one-two. Indeed, it s charming to find, for once, a child s picture that turns on the impact of an act of good writing.

When Wilbur (voiced by Dominic Scott Kay) learns that his place in the great barnyard of life is not the prettiest position to be in Wilbur to world: I want to live! Charlotte spins into her web these immortal words: Some Pig. The farm becomes a virtual shrine to miracles (a point somewhat more insistent than the rest of the film, thanks to religion-friendly Walden Media). When the hubbub dies down, and Wilbur heads back on the chopping block, the barn community begins to think of better words: A word must be true, Charlotte says, Wilbur, this only works if a word is true.

That s literally White speaking, his New England temperament firm and fussy. Winick, who made the underrated 13 Going on 30 and indie flick Tadpole, is intimidated. I don t blame him. But when he does allow the film to venture from the book, it s to the repetition and chase sequences you could find in nearly any ordinary animated picture. When he wants you to feel an emotion, his camera glides in tight. I imagine White himself, though he might not admit, would want a movie of Charlotte s Web to be true but retain a shred of its filmmaker s personality.

Winick may be faithful but he s not too imaginative.

For the life of me, sitting here at my keyboard, hands poised above the keys, I can t remember how Charlotte s Web ends. I saw the movie a week ago. But I can t remember what happens to Wilbur. And now I think of the children who may be reading this, and I think, that s for the better.



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