E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web is an elegant, wonderful, timeless children’s story, but the big-budget live-action film that has been made from it is kind of lame. The most unfortunate thing, probably, is the fact that its status as live-action inevitably reduces it to being the kind of movie that has a barnyard full of computer-animated talking animals, meant to look as realistic as possible with the exception of their lips, which creepily simulate human speech. This sort of thing has never worked, and for all of the technological advances we’ve seen, it still looks chintzy and low-rent. The film’s look betrays its source material.
That’s not the only problem. I have this theory that books are not movies, and Charlotte’s Web is as good a specimen as any to confirm it: the screenplay is slavishly faithful to White’s story, but the story changes in unpredictable ways. No longer does Fern (played here by Dakota Fanning), the sweet little girl who spares tiny piglet Wilbur from destruction, serve as the fairy tale’s steadfast human anchor; instead, she is gradually marginalized before being rendered completely irrelevant, her plotline resolved in a way that’s sweet but also a little crass considering that her act of saving Wilbur is pitched as either heroic or miraculous, depending on who you ask.
It’s important to note that this is emphatically a children’s movie, with virtually no attempt having been made to give it universal appeal or the label “family film.” As such, it’s ill-becoming of one to be too grouchy, and in fairness, it would take an affirmative effort to make anything by E.B. White genuinely bad or in any way offensive. This iteration of Charlotte’s Web is by no means that, and I can’t imagine that it won’t delight the less demanding younger set.
At the same time, there are plenty of reasons to be disgruntled. Complaints about the look of the film and its treatment of Fern are legitimate, I think, but on an even more general level, it’s hard not to notice that Charlotte’s Web has been turned into a mash-up of vague and tiresome platitudes — lots of talk about friendship and childhood and miracles (especially miracles) without ever really pinning down what any of those terms mean or why we should care. The film’s incarnation of Doctor Dorian, for example, has Beau Bridges showing up to spout profundities at Fern’s mother, and it struck me that a modern day Greek chorus works much better (once again) on the page than on the screen. I’m not sure this film speaks to children with on their level; ultimately, and while recognizing that friendship and childhood are important (I am noncommittal about miracles), I think it’s talking nonsense at them.
Further complicating matters is the voice casting, most problematically Julia Roberts, who is a bizarre choice for Charlotte and sounds for all the world like Julia Roberts standing in front of a microphone and reading lines. Live-action Dakota Fanning, on the other hand, is terrific, declining the invitation to be cute to the exclusion of everything else, and making Fern utterly believable. That makes the film’s treatment of her all the more upsetting.
Last summer, I marveled at the way that virtually shot-for-shot remakes can lose so much in the translation. Charlotte’s Web is the literary adaptation equivalent. It doesn’t turn E.B. White into a travesty, but it manages to make him border on inane.