Beautifully shot, wonderfully paced and well-voiced and acted, 'Charlotte's Web' is a hugely enjoyable adaptation of the classic EB White novel. The original story, first published in 1952, has sold 43m copies since its release and is by some reckonings the most popular children's paperback of all time. The book was a pleasure for its wisdom, always expressed in clear, concise and powerful prose, and for its superbly structured story. It is a major achievement to have these essential elements translated to the screen in a style that is truly reflective of White's remarkable writing.
The film begins with the birth of a litter of pigs. Among them is Wilbur, the runt of the bunch. Plucked out by the farmer, the piglet is saved from an early demise by his daughter, Fern Arable, excellently portrayed by Dakota Fanning, who is charmed by Wilbur and adopts him as her pet. At first, Wilbur lives in Fern's house and goes everywhere, even to school, with her. As he grows, though, he is forced out of the house and into Fern's uncle's barn.
This is where the action really gets going. The barn contains an engaging and energetic cast of characters - especially enjoyable here are the dim and verbose sheep led by John Cleese and Steve Buscemi's Templeton the Rat - who take delight in telling Wilbur that, because he is a spring pig, he is likely to end up in the smokehouse before Christmas. Wilbur desperately wants to live to see snow. His escape attempts are futile however, and, as all the other animals are indifferent to his plight, his future begins to look bleak.
But Wilbur finds a new friend in Charlotte, a spider, and the web-maker of the title. "I am despised," she tells Wilbur. Unlike the other animals, though, Wilbur can see her beauty. Charlotte - pleasingly arachnid and wonderfully voiced by Julia Roberts - promises she will save Wilbur from the butcher's knife, and she comes up with an ingenious plan to convince the humans, in whose hands his fate is, to keep him.
As in the book, the story proceeds to teach valuable lessons about the power of words to make a difference and the value of tolerance. These themes are in the background though; this film never forgets that its primary duty is to entertain. There is humour aplenty, a sprinkling of magical scenes - Charlotte's web spinning is brilliantly brought to the screen - and, finally, a heart-wrenching but satisfying climax.
Appropriately old-fashioned, perhaps even a touch slow paced for some tastes, this is truly a film the whole family can enjoy.