It’s Charlotte’s Web, fer pete’s sake, E. B. White’s achingly touching story about the secret hopes and wishes of barnyard creatures, about the dark, unspoken purpose of their lives of which we believe them ignorant but of which they are, in fact, all too cognizant. It’s Charlotte’s Web, so you know you’re gonna cry, even if you love bacon and can’t abide spiders.
The question here is, Are you gonna cry for the right reason? Are you gonna cry because They — the lurking faceless, soulless, ubiquitous cogs of corporate Hollywood They — took all that is right and proud and strong and sad and funny about this wonderful, wonderful book and turned it into a juvenile grossout of fart jokes and Three Stooges schtick, turned it into yet another example of the cesspool of toilet humor and imbecility that “children’s entertainment” has become, turned it into Barnyard… Or are you gonna sniffle and sob with joy and happily run through a whole packet of Kleenex and be so moved that you won’t even be able to talk about it afterward and end up feeling kinda silly because it’s just a kids’ movie about farm animals, for crying out loud?
It’s the latter. Happy happy, joy joy: it’s the latter. The first live-action adaptation of the story of Wilbur the pig and Charlotte the spider gracefully tiptoes around all the enormous potential for disaster and gets it all absolutely, perfectly, couldn’t-be-more-right right. This is a wonder of gentle humor, tender sentiment, and uplifting philosophy about the joys of friendship, the marvels of nature, the circle of life. Any urges to “modernize” anything have been ignored. In fact, the film will feel warmly, comfortably familiar to anyone who was a child in America in the latter half of the 20th century — director Gary Winick (13 Going on 30) creates a cocoon of lovely nostalgia with its modern fairy-tale setting, a time and place that could be almost anywhere in middle America between, say, 1950 and 1980. This is, ostensibly, a movie for children, but today’s kids won’t recognize this world without videogame, iPods, or the Internet, this world where kids amused themselves, but their parents and grandparents, the last generations to play outdoors, will.
Farmgirl Fern — played by twelve-year-old Dakota Fanning (Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story, War of the Worlds), who continues her reign as the most astonishing child actor ever — is a real-kid kid, all tumbledown tomboyishness and little-girl dreaminess. She plays outdoors, with the animals, and comes to champion the runty pig, and she’s a charmer, but the real stars here are the live-action animals Babed up in an astonishingly realistic way. The story of the terrific, humble pig Wilbur and his barnyard alliance with the courtly spider, Charlotte, who takes up the cause of keeping him off the Christmas table, comes to life in a way that even the beautiful 70s animated version of the book did not. Templeton the rat’s under-the-barn hidey-hole, a rodential palace of found objects and delightfully twisty tunnels, is a perfectly conceived cinematic pleasure, and Steve Buscemi (The Island, Big Fish), who gives him voice, is the real heart of the film: his reluctant and gradual winning over to the plight of the pig is what keeps the film from ever tipping over in the excessively mushy, and a certain dollop of gruff appeal is as much corn as he will concede the story. (Thomas Haden Church [Broken Trail, Over the Hedge], as a dumb-as-bricks crow, provides more straightforward comic relief, and he’s a riot.)
Julia Roberts (The Ant Bully, Ocean’s Twelve), as the voice of Charlotte, is sweetness tempered with a realistic wisdom — she is the gentle soul of the film, of course, but it’s a kind of soul that we’re not used to seeing anymore at movies aimed at children — at children of all ages. Instead of faux-deep claptrap about life and love that rings false because it is at odds with the meanspirited skeleton on which it is hung seemingly as an afterthought, here are hard lessons of the bitter underside of life and love — not just death but how a love that brings us together can also separate us from others — presented with a clarity and an authenticity that is almost shocking in its clear-eyed honesty. If you’re weeping by the end, it may be partly from a sense of relief, that the movies haven’t forgotten how to be fantastical and utterly down to earth at the same time.