It's hard to screw up Charlotte's Web. The 1952 E.B. White classic about friendship and the life cycle is as strong a story as anyone could ask for, and short of changing major plot points, the filmmakers are guaranteed to send their audience home happy. Director Gary Winick seems so cautious of ruining the timeless tale in his live-action version, however, that he manages to snuff the spark that has made Charlotte's Web so beloved over the years.
The story, as always, is deceptively simple: Wilbur (voiced by 10-year old Dominic Scott Kay) is a runt pig rescued from the axe by a well-meaning farmer's daughter, Fern (a pitch-perfect Dakota Fanning). When Wilbur moves into the family barn, he meets the oddballs that live there as well as the social outcast, a spider named Charlotte (the oddly didactic voice of Julia Roberts). While the other animals are resigned to Wilbur's fate as a Christmas ham, Charlotte employs her web-spinning skills and large vocabulary to make the humans recognize that Wilbur is, by turns, "some pig," "terrific," and "humble."
The narrative is filled with talky scenes between Charlotte and Wilbur that work better in print than on screen, and writers Susannah Grant and Karey Kirkpatrick compensate by adding a few new vignettes and characters. Thomas Haden Church and Andre "3000" Benjamin hilariously voice crows who are constantly foiled by a scarecrow. There are also extended scenes for Templeton, the dastardly barn rat (the always-delightful Steve Buscemi). While it's entertaining to hear the voice that once extolled you to "shake it like a Polaroid picture" coming out of a crow, most of the extra adventures merely distract from the main story.
The voice talent, coupled with some astonishing "acting" from real animals, is generally strong, though the number of animals jockeying for attention in the barn means even sparklers like Reba McEntire and Kathy Bates (as two cows) get crowded out. It's churlish to criticize a 10-year-old playing a pig, but Kay's one-dimensional voicing of Wilbur somehow doesn't stand up to the performance of the 47 pigs who took on the role. At any rate, the animals are all more entertaining than the humans in the story, who seem to believe that invoking the proper "down-home" atmosphere requires acting as woodenly as possible. Fern's mother and the farmer's wife Mrs. Zuckerman, especially, are so Stepford-by-way-of-Green Acres that every word out of their mouths rings false.
And that's the real problem with this Charlotte's Web. Set in a pseudo-'50s era that is meant to evoke generic Americana, the whole production annoys more than it soothes. The story is positioned in a time and setting that blatantly do not exist, despite all the talk toward the end of Wilbur making "our world" a better place. The film wants so desperately to be comforting that it ignores the main message of the book: Life isn't always perfect. Pigs get turned into bacon, beloved friends die, other friends grow up and leave you behind. White miraculously countered this message with a beautiful story and memorable characters, but here the prickles and quirks are smoothed out to help it all go down easier.
There's nothing wrong with this version of Charlotte's Web, but there's nothing particularly right about it either. It will probably draw out some tears in the end, some laughs in the middle, and be a gentle holiday trip to the movies for all the families who have loved the story for decades. Not a crime, but moviegoers who haven't had the pleasure of reading the book may leave wondering what all the fuss is about.