Charlotte’s Web: A Pretty Good Movie

Somebody had to do it. I took my two daughters to see the new Charlotte’s Web movie, and guess what? All three of us thought it was great.

It’s not better than the book, but if a movie has to be made it’s not likely to be much better than this one, which clings to E. B. White’s material like cellophane on paper. The film opens with a cartoon-style introduction that echoes Garth Williams’s warm pastel artwork, and never diverges from the book’s well-worn plot as far as I can tell. The acting is fine, the comedy is fun, and the stark messages about death (a strong theme in this children’s book) are not compromised.

I haven’t read the original in years, but my two favorite scenes were always 1) Templeton the rat going wilding at the state fair, and 2) Charlotte’s baby spiders coming out of their carefully protected egg and flying away. I’m glad to see both scenes respectfully cinema-tized here, and in fact this interpretation of Charlotte’s Web lavishes maximum attention on Charlotte’s vivid life-cycle, which progresses from vigorous adulthood to quick death during a single year, and then bursts into a moment of symbolic rebirth when her egg breaks open. This movie makes it clear that Charlotte’s Web has always been a spiritual story, in its own nameless, free-associating way.

I don’t have any big complaints about the movie. I’m pretty sure the talents of John Cleese, Thomas Haden Church, Cedric the Entertainer, Robert Redford and many other method actors are wasted in the roles of various horses, ducks and cows. But the actors in the human roles are inoffensive, and Steve Buscemi turns in a truly memorable performance as Templeton the rat.

This is the second movie based on Charlotte’s Web, but the first one suffered from undistinguished animation, which is certainly not in the sparkling E. B. White spirit. For the best Charlotte’s Web experience read the book, but you’re not going to go horribly wrong if you see the movie instead.

Oh, and here are some other literary film adaptations heading our way.

4 Responses

  1. AgreedI really liked it too,

    I really liked it too, and I’ve noticed how my admiration for that book has only grown in the 15 or so years since my mother first read it to me. “Charlotte’s Web” is one of those reminders that our obsessive categorization of literature is ultimately a meaningless pursuit. A great book is a great book, whether it’s written by E.B. White or Ian McEwan.

    I’m not sure if the following is insidery or not, but JG Ballard’s “Cocaine Nights” is slated for a feature adaptation in late 2007 as well. I’m curious, if a little apprehensive. Even a mostly-great director couldn’t quite make “Crash” work on film.

  2. agreedI heartily agree about

    I heartily agree about CW. The sad fact is that I had never read the book, and only did so after seeing the movie (it was written well past my childhood and I never caught up with it). Both great.
    As for the celebrity voices, I never could understand the concept. I went into the theater not knowing whose voices were being used, and didn’t find out until the end credits. As far as I’m concerned, a pro like the late Mel Blanc could do all the voices and probably do them better. But I concede that there are probably movie-goers who find the celebrity voices entertaining.

  3. the saddest partwas when the
    the saddest part

    was when the boy had to shoot his giant yeller spider in the barn because it got the rabies.

  4. Charlotte’s web and big
    Charlotte’s web and big questions?

    There’s a notion in all drama — even that directed towards children — that the big questions of life and death are addressed. I think Charlotte’s Web succeeds in exactly that way– the universal theme of the spider cheating the cruelty and greed of the world wanting a sacrificed pig through the magic of her web — and her poignant lesson to Wilbur about the universal truth of biological mortality still makes me weep. A great film and a great book, thank god it’s been revived!

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