It would be safe to say that nearly everyone has read a book which was eventually made into a movie. And, in many cases, no matter how good the movie is, the viewer will be disappointed as there is typically something from the book which didn't make it into the film. But, have you ever seen a movie based on a novel where you wished that they could have dropped an important part of the book? That was my feeling with the live-action version of E.B. White's classic, Charlotte's Web. While I love the book, I could really do without a live-action spider on-screen.
Charlotte's Web opens with a litter of pigs being born on the Arable farm. Mr. Arable (Kevin Anderson) discovers that one of the piglets is a runt and plans to kill it. His daughter, Fern (Dakota Fanning), witnesses this and elects to take care of the baby pig. Fern names the pig Wilbur (voiced by Dominic Scott Kay) and fawns over it night and day. As Wilbur begins to grow, Fern's parents insist that she get rid of it. Fern is against this, and a compromise is reached -- Wilbur moves across the street to Fern's Uncle's barn.
Once in the Zuckerman barn, Wilbur is very sad, as the other animals aren't very friendly at first. Wilbur's spirits are lifted when he hears a friendly voice and soon learns that it belongs to a spider named Charlotte (voiced by Julia Roberts). Charlotte is very kind and wise, and Wilbur quickly takes to her. Understanding that Mr. Zuckerman (Gary Basaraba) will most likely slaughter Wilbur come fall, Charlotte promises to help save Wilbur's life. Charlotte spins webs which contain words (which describe Wilbur), which make the Zuckerman's suddenly pay attention to their special pig. But, can Charlotte's plan actually save Wilbur's life?
When reviewing movies and DVDs, it's really easy to take on the extremes. When a movie is really bad, it's simple (and sometimes fun) to list off the elements which didn't work in the movie. Critiquing a very good film can often be more challenging (as we get into a "matter of taste" territory), but there are still basic elements which can be identified. But, it's those mediocre movies which can be real head-scratchers. Charlotte's Web is such a film. It certainly isn't a bad movie, but it's not the instant classic which it aspires to be.
Charlotte's Web does many things right. First of all, it doesn't tinker too much with E.B. White's classic novel. The only notable addition to the story are two crows (voiced by Thomas Haden Church and Andre Benjamin) who torment Templeton the rat (voiced by Steve Buscemi). Otherwise, the story is intact, although, of course, parts have been telescoped to fit the confines of a feature film. The special effects are excellent, and save for a few moments, the real animals, puppets, and CGI creatures blend seamlessly. (Although there is one crazy shot where Charlotte looks huge..."It's not to scale!") There is just enough sprinkling of the human characters, and the animals get plenty of screen-time. At 96 minutes, the movie moves along at a very nice pace and is just right for its intended family audience.
And yet, the entire affair feels very hollow for some reason. While Charlotte's Web is technically proficient -- superior even --, I was never drawn into the story. Again, screenwriters Susannah Grant and Karey Kirkpatrick have remained very faithful to the book, but they have gone too far in boiling the story down to its essence...almost to the point where there is nothing left. I've read the book many times, and I've seen the 1973 animated version on numerous occasion, so I'm familiar with the story and I was prepared to be sucked in by this new version. And yet, it came across as quite sterile. Trust me, I'm the kind of person who gets emotional over commercials, but this movie left me cold. So much attention was paid to the animals and the voice actors that the true heart of the story got left behind.
(As an aside, while watching this live action version of Charlotte's Web, I couldn't help thinking of Babe. Now, I realize that the novel Charlotte's Web was published some 30 years before the Babe book (and the former no doubt influenced the latter), but the Babe movie has a precedent over this new Charlotte's Web. Thus, while watching this movie with a talking pig who befriends other animals on a farm, I wanted to be moved as I was with Babe, but it never happened.)
And then we have the spider. God bless realistic digital effects, but if you have even the slightest hint of arachnophobia, then this movie is going to freak you out. Yes, I realize that one of the points of the book is that a creature which many find creepy would be the heroine of the film, but this one may be a little too creepy for some viewers. I prefer the animated version where the Debbie Reynolds-voiced spider is a cute creature with a sassy hairdo. This thing looks like something which just finished shooting a horror movie. As Joey Tribbiani would say, "Is it on me?! I feel like it's on me!!"
Charlotte's Web is some DVD courtesy of Paramount Home Entertainment. The film has come to DVD in two separate versions, one full-frame and the other widescreen. For the purposes of this review, only the widescreen version was viewed. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. This DVD features a very good transfer, as the image is very sharp and clear. The picture shows basically no grain and there are no defects from the source material. The colors look fantastic, as the movie is loaded with lush greens and rustic browns. The image shows only a slight amount of artifacting, but few haloes. There is no pixellation when fast motion is on-screen. Overall, a strong transfer.
The DVD features a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track. This track features clear dialogue and sound effects. The stereo effects sound fine, and, for a family film, there is a nice amount of subwoofer action during a storm scene and when fireworks are displayed. Surround sound effects are present, but they aren't separated from the front channel sounds very much. Thus, even when sound is emanating form the rear speakers, it isn't distinct enough to stand out.
The Charlotte's Web DVD contains a load of extras. We start with two AUDIO COMMENTARIES. The first is provided by director Gary Winick. Winick offers an engaging talk, as he discusses all facets of the film. Never getting overly technical, he talks about the animals, the visual effects, and the actors, while also touching on the story and the source novel. The second commentary comes from producer Jordan Kerner and visual effects supervisor John Andrew Berton Jr. This pair touch on some of the same subjects are Winick, but they, obviously, delve deeper into the visual effects used in the film, and Kerner talks about the development of the script, casting, and location scouting. As with most Paramount DVD, the featurettes each focus on a particular facet of the film. "Making Some Movie" (29 minutes) looks at the development of the script, which many mentions of E.B. White. It then goes on to examine Gary Winick, the set design, how weather effected the shoot, the look of the film, the pig actors, and the visual FX. "Some Voices" (9 minutes) contains comments from the film's voice actors and shows them at work. "Flacka's Pig Tales" (11 minutes) is clearly aimed at kids, as Flacka, one of the pig actors from the movie, teaches the viewer to say hello in different languages, and then goes on look at how the animals worked in the film. We get a close up look at the animal trainers in "How Do They Do That?" (5 minutes). The original novel is discussed in "What Makes a Classic?" (5 minutes). "Where are They Now?" (7 minutes) explains how all of the pigs used in the film were adopted after shooting wrapped. Finally, we have two MUSIC VIDEOS, "Ordinary Miracle" by Sarah McLachlan and "Make a Wish" by Bob Carlisle and Lucy Kane.
I hate to sound cynical, but Charlotte's Web is exactly what one would expect from Hollywood in 2007. The movie is a technical marvel, as the special effects are excellent (in the case of Charlotte, maybe too good), and the film's lush look is fantastic. And yet, while the movie is entertaining and is never boring, it's also never very moving, and the timeless tale of Wilbur seems far less important than it should.