It is no coincidence that the two most moving books I ever read as a child, Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, were both written by the same man, the great E.B. White, or that they were the two quietest books I’d ever encountered. White, in his sublimely dotty illustrated talking-animal novels, conjured a gossamer dream of an earlier, gentler America: a tweedy, soothing, often rural place, too chock-full of homespun eccentrics to teeter into quaintness. That his heroes were critters who spoke and had feelings, just like the humans around them, somehow seemed the most commonsense thing in the world, a natural extension of that lyrical decency.
Hollywood, of course, has already had its way with Stuart Little, turning him into the mighty mouse of his own pow-zap universe, and there was every reason to assume that the new animatronic Charlotte’s Web might receive the same brash, born-to-merchandise treatment. It’s indeed a bit noisy, with a soundtrack that lays on the poky good cheer, and the animals in the barn rib each other a tad frenetically with their multiethnic celebrity voices. Once the story settles in, though, a little miracle occurs: The director, Gary Winick (13 Going on 30), puts the book, in all its glorious tall-tale reverence, right up on screen.
What hooks you from the start is Dakota Fanning’s unfussy passion as Fern, the young farm girl who rescues Wilbur the spring pig — the runt of the litter — from the ax blade and then deposits him in her uncle’s barn. Before long, those chatty showbiz barnyard voices (Oprah Winfrey and Cedric the Entertainer as Gussy and Golly, the feisty goose and gander; John Cleese as Samuel, the snob of a sheep; Kathy Bates and Reba McEntire as Bitsy and Betsy, the haughty cows; and Robert Redford — himself! — as Ike, the scaredy-cat horse) have coalesced into an organic political community. It’s Animal Farm with better jokes.
That said, I was hardly prepared for the velvet tenderness, the slightly doleful maternal perfection of Julia Roberts as Charlotte, the friendly spider who comes up with a plan to save Wilbur from being turned into bacon the following spring. She begins to spin words in her web, commencing with ”Some Pig,” an almost Zen declaration of Wilbur’s worth. In a funny way, Charlotte’s Web winks at the power of advertising: As that message-board web draws people from all over the county, they don’t merely marvel at the existence of the words — they absorb the phrase’s meaning, agreeing that Wilbur, who hasn’t changed, must indeed be some pig.
The thing is — and this is what will leave you a wreck by the end — he really is some pig. Not because he’s at all special, but because he’s good old ordinary Wilbur, perfect and magical in himself, as is everyone else. Charlotte’s Web, because of the sweet-souled humor and care with which it has been adapted, brings to the screen a vision of the world that, in its happy nod to the grace that’s in all of us, is religious in the deepest sense. It’s a movie that might just inspire E.B. White, up in literary heaven, to wipe away a tear of gratitude.