Amazing! Radiant! Flawlessly animated! Sorry, but I can’t help but indulge a little hyperbole while sifting through my notes for “Charlotte’s Web,” a faithful and winning rendition of E.B. White’s time-honored American classic about a runty pig and his web-slinging publicist.
Certainly, there’s much to love about the latest incarnation of White’s best-selling 1952 children’s book, directed with wit and pre-“Shrek” sincerity by Gary Winick (“13 Going on 30”). The barn animals at the Zuckerman farm are a roundly amusing bunch, from the selfserving pack rat Templeton (voiced by the uncannily rodentlike Steve Buscemi) to the aging stallion Ike (Robert Redford), who scolds the barn’s sheep for their lack of Protestant work ethic: “You don’t work. You grow hair!”
As far as talking-animal special effects go, the movie must represent some kind of benchmark. Every computergenerated lip motion is perfectly in sync with the live-action animal in question, so, for instance, it really does look like a viscous strand of drool is dangling from the cud-chewing mouth of that cow that sounds like Reba McEntire. Other voice-over cameos include Cedric the Entertainer and Oprah Winfrey as water fowl spouses, John Cleese as the aforementioned wool-producing layabout, and, in the movie’s funniest turn, Thomas Haden Church as a jonesing crow: “I’m dyin’ here, man! I gotta get some corn!”
All are puzzled by the arrival of Wilbur (child actor Dominic Scott Kay), an undersized swine sent to live at the Zuckerman farm by little Fern Arable (Dakota Fanning), who saved the squirming, doomed piglet from her father’s ax. Even with the reprieve, Wilbur’s future doesn’t look particularly bright, what with the Zuckerman smokehouse looming in the distance.
Enter Charlotte A. Cavatica (Julia Roberts), a barn spider with a kind, patient disposition who takes a shine to the adolescent pig and begins spinning endorsements on her web (“Some pig,” “Amazing”) to impress his human handlers and forestall his slaughter. Roberts is ideally suited for the part; with her warm, motherly tremolo, she’s the teacher you had a crush on in third grade. Visually, Charlotte is a lovely thing — all slender, graceful limbs and pleading, pretty eyes. Pleading, pretty Julia Roberts eyes.
On the way to Wilbur’s defining moment at the Somerset County Fair, screenwriters Susannah Grant (“In Her Shoes”) and Karey Kirkpatrick (“Over the Hedge”) remind us that, for all of Charlotte’s hype, Wilbur really isn’t that “amazing” or “radiant” at all. Sure, he’s innocent and sweet, but aren’t all kids innocent and sweet? What makes Charlotte special is that she championed Wilbur without any obvious reason to do so, and for children who feel lost and ignored in the elementary-school mob, that’s profound. When Wilbur finally bids Charlotte adieu, is he not jogging a memory in many of us of saying farewell to one, inexplicably kind teacher who plucked us out of the mob?
That’s the sort of sweetness that resonates just as nicely in today’s technical, filtered world as it did 50 years ago. For once, audiences can believe what they read on the web.