Dakota Fanning, Julia Roberts, Steve Buscemi, John Cleese, Oprah Winfrey, Kathy Bates, Reba McEntire, Cedric the Entertainer, Robert Redford, Andre' Benjamin, Thomas Haden Church, Sam Shephard, Abraham Benrubi
In weaving together a web of childhood innocence long missing from contemporary children's cinema, director Gary Winick has fashioned one of 2006's strongest American-made children's films sure to lead a legion of young fans to their local bookstore to purchase the even more innocent, magical and sweet book by E.B. White (who also penned "Stuart Little").
Reminiscent of the "Babe" films, "Charlotte's Web" is a marvelous blend of CGI farm animals with their human counterparts in the familiar story of a young girl named Fern (Dakota Fanning), a pig named Wilbur (voiced by Dominic Scott Kay), the spider named Charlotte (Julia Roberts) and a host of other friendly and festive farm animals including a rat (Steve Buscemi), a sheep (John Cleese), a pair of geese (Oprah Winfrey and Cedric the Entertainer), two cows (Kathy Bates and Reba McEntire), Ike the Horse (Robert Redford), two crows (Thomas Haden Church and Andre Benjamin) and Uncle the Pig (Abraham Benrubi).
The proceedings are narrated by the remarkably appropriate Sam Shephard and a host of mostly unknown humans (with the exception of Kevin Anderson and Beau Bridges) round out the cast.
Without significant embellishment of the basic story of "Charlotte's Web," director Gary Winick ("Tadpole" and "13 Going on 30") has fashioned a family friendly, heartwarming and fairly retro film that often feels like a family film from the 1960's or 1970's even when one considers the remarkable technical advances that make such a film now possible.
The CGI animals are created realistically, with the exception of Charlotte. In the case of this potentially frightening spider, an effort seems to have been made to soften her appearance and, as voiced by Julia Roberts, Charlotte turns into a mighty friendly, soothing spider rather than a stereotypical ugly, frightening one.
"Charlotte's Web" is at its most magical in the barn and in its CGI world. While the human encounters don't really detract from the action, they also don't enhance it and, ultimately, the human characters are drawn too thinly to really add much to the film. Fanning, an actress already proven to possess vast emotional range for a child actress, is really called upon only to be, well, a child. If given a bit more freedom, Fanning could have easily developed a character who truly showed her love for Wilbur and, on the flip side, Winick alludes briefly to the fact that Fern is maturing and, perhaps, could outgrow her fondness for Wilbur. Fanning, easily, could have portrayed this conflict convincingly. This, in turn, would have added a degree of depth to a very basic story that would have greatly enhanced the character development. This, again, could be an intentional effort to produce a true family film or it could be a lacking in the film. To a certain degree, both points appear to be true.
The voice-over work is strong across the board, most notably Buscemi, Kay, Benjamin and Haden Church. Roberts does a nice job conveying Charlotte's compassionate, caring nature but, at times, plays the character large enough that it feels like "Julia" and not "Charlotte." I will add, however, that Roberts and the young Kay have a marvelous chemistry and their later scenes are quite touching.
I found myself a tad troubled by the fairly stereotypical casting of the voiceover work. Buscemi as Templeton the rat? Kathy Bates as a cow? Of course, this could just me doing a Rosie O'Donnell and making an issue out of nothing.
Among the human cast, only Fanning and Beau Bridges really are given much chance at all to shine and, to their credit, both do shine during their time onscreen.
Beautifully photographed, wonderfully scored by Danny Elfman and the kind of warm and fuzzy, non-distracting family film that Hollywood hardly touches anymore, "Charlotte's Web" is an entertaining and sweet film that also opens the door to many valuable family discussions about friendship, love, life and death.
Charlotte's web is sure to captivate your children and bring fond memories back to you, as well.