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.