"Charlotte's Web" is a new wrapper based on the beloved E.B. White novel by the same name. The storytelling and narration remain true to the book, which is no small undertaking given the popularity of the book and the 1973 animated film. Despite the challenge of meeting such high expectations, director Gary Winick pulls it off superbly.
The film, like the book, comes across as a bit simplistic in his basic message: friendship is a central tenant in life, and keeping promises is a big part of friendship. Fern promises Wilbur she'll take care of him, saving him from her dad's ax (for no crime beyond being the runt of the newborn pigs). She's stubborn to the point of bordering on disobedient, but her father admires her pluck in standing up to him to keep her promise. I can't help but root for the girl, despite her slightly obnoxious approach to getting her way.
Fern and Wilbur undergo the lesson of separation sometimes spurs personal growth. She has to leave Wilbur at their uncle's farm across the way as he grows larger with age; Fern isn't keen on the idea, but understands the need. Soon after going, though, Wilbur begins to experience a new group of animal friends: some kind, others more reserved. He meets Charlotte, a spider, and they become fast friends; Charlotte herself isn't popular with the others, being a spider (not highly regarded in the hierarchy of the barn). Winick's production team makes Charlotte look presentable enough as a spider, I suppose, even if the horse still finds her appearance unsettling.
Charlotte promises Wilbur she'll do whatever it takes to make sure he doesn't become dinner as someone's Christmas ham -- and turns to spinning words about Wilbur in her web. Even through the previews and knowing its coming, you get that warm feeling when you see the community's positive reaction to her work. (People travel from miles around just to see "some pig" spun into Charlotte's web.) The uncle, Zuckerman, still makes mention of how Wilbur's fate is far from decided, and comments that worst case scenario, he'll fetch a decent price on the butcher's block.
I didn't really struggle with the notion of talking animals the way I have in other past productions. The animals mannerisms seemed consistent with their breed, despite them speaking English. The usual tell-tale CGI sort of human movement to their mouths was predominately avoided, and it very much felt as though a goose and cow could actually speak. Charlotte's final act of friendship was conveyed well, without it being glossed over -- kids could tell what happened without it being too obvious (and Charlotte explained the cycle of life earlier on), but it was still clear enough that you find a tear in your eye -- even knowing what was coming.
All told, Winick's efforts to keep "Charlotte's Web" true to the source worked, accompanied by a setting that was both idyllic to the story but visually could be just outside of city's limits. The story moved along at a good pace, helping you forget it was nearly a two hour film (and the minimal fidget and whine factor of kids around me bore that out).