Surprise! There is nothing even remotely offensive or ironic or postmodern about Charlotte’s Web. A live-action retelling of E.B. White’s children’s book, it features talking farm animals and kids being kids. Finally.
A seeming return to simpler, safer times, the movie offers a blissful myopia and joy. The story emphasizes the importance of friendship and the cycle of life. Fern Arable (Dakota Fanning) awakens one night, just in time to catch her father, his axe in hand, about to off the runt in a newborn litter of piglets. She protests. The piglet is so cute. Here we get the first of many lines borrowed from the book, as Fern asks her father, “If I were born small, would you have killed me?” Though her rationale for animal rights is all pathos and no logic, you simply can’t argue with Dakota Fanning.
Fern’s exaggerated compassion drives the film, as we are reminded repeatedly that her piglet, whom she names Wilbur, is fated to be eaten. (One of the film’s few “over their heads” jokes is a cut from Fern’s plea to spare Wilbur’s life to her plate of eggs and bacon.) Yes, it’s a complex relationship that people have with animals, but acknowledging this complexity enriches the film rather than hampers it. There can be no easy answer to how Fern can love both Wilbur and bacon.
Eventually, Wilbur grows too large for Fern to handle, and so he’s sent to live at her uncle’s farm. Here Wilbur begins talking (voice by 10-year-old Dominic Scott Kay), and to feel overwhelmingly alone (it’s also where comparisons to Babe become unavoidable). None of the other animals is interested in befriending him, knowing as they do that Wilbur is a “spring pig” and as such, will be slaughtered for Christmas dinner. Wilbur remains ignorant of his fate until he meets Charlotte (Julia Roberts), a nurturing spider with kind eyes and a large vocabulary. She tells him the straight truth, and proceeds to spin a solution to his problem.
While there are few works of children’s literature as hallowed as White’s, Gary Winick’s movie doesn’t build suspense concerning Wilbur’s fate as tightly as it could, no matter how many times we see the shadowy smokehouse looming in the background. Charlotte’s scheme — to weave words into her web that describe Wilbur — is charming (and stunning to watch, as we see her web-spinning from her vantage point, swooping and soaring against the night sky). But still, the plot structure around such imagery isn’t very engaging.
At one point, I heard a child ask her parent, “Why doesn’t Charlotte just write ‘Don’t Eat Wilbur’ on her web?” The kid has a point. The world has changed a lot since White’s book first appeared in 1954. The narrator (Sam Shepard) notes that people in the bucolic town where the action occurs “didn’t question the order of things.” Today, however, such practice is hardly considered endearing.
Fern’s own storyline offers another sort of order. Her mother (Essie Davis) tries throughout the film to remake her tomboy daughter into a girly girl, furrowing her brow and consulting an all-knowing doctor (Beau Bridges). When on screen, Mother Arable is always either cooking or ironing or worrying about Fern’s fondness for overalls. In fact, Mrs. Arable all but dismisses her daughter’s dedication to the fight for Wilbur’s life, and looks proudest when she spots her in a Ferris wheel, smiling alongside a boy.
The film doesn’t question the order represented in Mrs. Arable’s desire for Fern’s appropriate girlhood. It just endorses it. Fern’s “turn” comes when she chooses to wear a yellow dress instead of her overalls. The film’s insistence on life’s cycles may demand that Fern become feminized, so she, too, can eventually procreate and die. Or maybe Charlotte — the single mother who keeps her promises no matter what — is a better role model for her babies than Mommie Arable can imagine being.