Imagine, if you will, that Shrek’s Princess Fiona had stayed foxy when she changed into an ogre. That would have diluted the whole ‘pretty on the inside’ message a tad, right? Exactly why, then, Julia Roberts’ Charlotte is portrayed as the world’s sexiest spider is a bit of a mystery. She’s all Cadbury’s Caramel-bunny intonation, with big brown eyes and long slender legs like an arachnid Angelina, hardly one for fellow critters to have misgivings about. Is that not missing the point?
Other than Roberts, though, Charlotte’s Web avoids the Shark Tale folly where the anthropomorphic characters look a little like the big-name actors behind them. The CGI-enhanced farm animals might all sport famous voices, but you’ll often be hard pressed to place them. Grumpy horse Ike? Robert Redford! Maternal goose Gussie? Oprah Winfrey! Bitsy the cow? Er, Kathy Bates.
As everyone of a certain age will know, EB White’s classic children’s story follows farmer’s daughter Fern (Dakota Fanning), saving a runty piglet from the chop and nursing him to full health, whereupon he’s sent to her uncle’s neighbouring farm. Cold-shouldered by his fellow barn dwellers, lonely young Wilbur (voiced by 10-year-old Dominic Scott Kay) is befriended by Charlotte the spider, who makes it her mission to save this spring pig from slaughter. To this end, she uses her weaving abilities to extol his virtues and, as news of the wordy webs spreads, Wilbur’s fate seems ever less shaky.
Fanning is given little to test her ample acting talents but there’s surely no-one better at being genuinely adorable without slipping into sickly-sweet territory. Aside from her role, it’s all up to the animals and Steve Buscemi’s rat Templeton, with his artful, junk-studded domain, is the nearest to the villain of the piece. His Raiders-referencing rotten-egg chase sequence and sparring with two hungry crows (Thomas Haden Church and OutKast’s André Benjamin) provide the pick of the entertainment down on the farm.
There are continuity glitches with the size of Wilbur throughout – with the pig shrinking and growing between alternate shots of the same scenes – and some of the CGI looks flat and rubbery, but the target audience is unlikely to either notice or care. Fern’s no Matilda (just imagine how amazing Fanning could have been in a Roald Dahl adap...), Wilbur’s a Babe impersonator and Charlotte’s so obviously lovely that the other animals’ dislike of her seems ludicrous and their eventual acceptance inevitable, overdue and therefore less effective. However, for its flaws, Charlotte’s Web remains surprisingly inviting.
Hardly the equal of Babe but the superior voice cast and Fanning's unforced charm make for another film that'll put you off pork forever.