Today I went with my son's third-grade class to see the new Charlotte's Web movie. His class had all read the book together and this was their big reward. I love the book. We'd read it a couple times to Monk when he was still three years old. I'm quite fond of the old animated movie version (1973) of the classic story.
After hearing some great reviews of the new movie, I was quite disappointed by it. Overall, I found most of the performances to be cold and disinterested. It was as if the actors themselves never even bought into the story.
In the opening scene when Fern (played by Dakota Fanning) confronts her father who's about to do away with the runt piglet, you never get the feeling that these two characters actually have a relationship with one another. Fanning plays the moment as if she has no doubt that the father will do exactly as she wishes. Though she verbally protests, she seems emotionally unmoved by the prospect of the piglet's death. It's an odd combination--to see an empathetic character being played by a non-empathetic actor.
The quirky animals in the barn never take on dimension. Mostly you get the feeling that it's a poor remake of Babe. The characters' lines fall flat and seem strangely stiff. Maybe a result of updating the film to a contemporary setting without really updating the language. The only character who seemed to show any life was the rat Templeton, played by Steve Buscemi. Though admittedly he would only shine when he seemed to be doing his best impression of Paul Lynde's nasal-toned, self-absorbed ramblings of the same character 33 years ago.
Julia Roberts as Charlotte never seems to add any warmth or depth to her voice. She sounds as if she's reading her part distractedly. I never could shake the feeling that she remained aloof to the whole enterprise--as if she were just putting in time to collect a check at the end of the day.
Sam Shepherd's folksy voice as the narrator had the greatest potential. Ultimately, however, the writing seemed so bent on creating a sense of the "ordinariness" of this town, the animals, and the people that you had the feeling no one behind the film had ever lived a day in an ordinary town. Certainly, no one on the cast seemed capable of imagining--or worse, believing in--the everyday magic of the ordinary. As a result, the whole project fell awfully flat.
If you want to enjoy the story of Charlotte's Web again without reading the book, go back to the older animated version. You'll find a lot more life there then you will in the current release. If you're looking for a fun movie with animals, you'd be better off watching Babe. Or find a copy of the wonderful Adventures of Milo and Otis.