When farmyard runt Wilbur (Dominic Scott Kay) is threatened with the smokehouse, spider Charlotte (Julia Roberts) promises the pig he will live to see winters first snowfall. She spins a miracle that transforms the farm and all who live there.
E. B. White’s Classic children’s book — a profound story of unlikely friendship, loyalty, loss and the natural cycle of life — was turned into a reasonably charming animated feature with Debbie Reynolds voicing the arachnid heroine over 30 years ago. Now the wonders of technology have tempted another generation of Charlotte-lovers to go the Babe route of live action and talking animals. The overall effect is pleasing, including the lovely rendering of the seasons and traditional farmland Americana (re-created in Australia). But the barnyard antics and inter-species dynamic among sheep, cows, poultry and the adorable, innocent pink piggy struggle to escape the shadow of the peerless Babe.
The film is more distinctive when it remembers that its heart and soul is the unique relationship between lonely piglet Wilbur and the compassionate barn spider who befriends him, vows somehow to save his life and finds the inspiration to do it. Wilbur alone finds Charlotte beautiful (well, she is pretty cute at that). Her qualities and his admiration for her show the barn’s other arachnophobic residents that every being is special and has a purpose, which plants the seed of an uplifting moral with some dark and sad undertones. Alas, children are at least as likely to be engaged by the farting, wisecracking comic sidekick, annoying rat Templeton (Steve Buscemi), although he, his underground home and his Indiana Jones-y misadventures exemplify a seamless interweaving of live action with CGI that you’d swear is real.
Having a producer, director and writers with credits like Pieces Of April, Erin Brockovich and Chicken Run between them attracted an unusual voice cast, including Sam Shepard as the narrator and Robert Redford as — what else? — the horse. Dakota Fanning is endearing as Fern, the little girl who first rescues and rears Wilbur but inevitably grows up and away from him. The only real bad mark goes to the usually deft Danny Elfman, whose uncharacteristically mawkish score wells up intrusively every time something terrific or touching happens. Which is not as often as it might, but adequately enough for laughter and tears.
Cute and sweet, and if it lacks great wit or magic, at least it has the courage to remain faithful to the gentle sadness and realism of the original material.