Charlotte's Web

Starring: Dakota Fanning and Kevin Anderson. Voiced by Julia Roberts, Oprah Winfrey, Kathy Bates, John Cleese and Jennifer Garner. Directed by Gary Winick.
Running Time: 113 minutes
Rated: Rated G
Based on E B White's classic children's novel written in 1973, Charlotte's Web is a deeply moving story about love and mortality, that seamlessly blends live action with computer animation.

Dakota Fanning stars as Fern Arable, a twelve year-old tomboy living on a farm in Maine, who wakes one night to discover that her father (Kevin Anderson) is about to destroy the runt of a newly-born litter of pigs.

Fern is aghast at her father's hard-heartedness, and persuades him to allow her to nurture the piglet, whom she calls Wilbur, in the family home. Wilbur thrives. But as he grows larger, Fern is forced to relocate Wilbur to the Zuckerman's neighbouring farm, where he is placed in a barn alongside a select group of animals that include Gussy the goose (Oprah Winfrey), Golly the gander (Cedric the entertainer), Samuel the sheep (John Cleese), Ike the horse (Robert Redford), and Bitsy the cow (Kathy Bates).

Wilbur is born in the spring, and as all the inhabitants of the barn know, although they try hard to conceal this unpalatable fact from Wilbur, the destiny of spring pigs is to adorn the table at Christmas, 'with apple in mouth', as noted wryly by the barn rat Templeton (Steve Buscemi).

Charlotte A Cavatica (Julia Roberts), is a white-grey, hairy spider who lives high in the barn roof. She alone of the animals understands Wilbur's sadness at being separated from Fern, and her first greeting to him is the whispered, elegant word, 'Salutations!' Wilbur is new to the world, and because of her readiness to be his friend and the marvellous intricacy of her webs, he finds her beautiful.

Charlotte is touched, and vows to the little pig, whose natural joy in life is overshadowed by the knowledge that he is to be slaughtered by winter, that she will save him, and that he shall live to see Christmas. Whereupon Charlotte, to the amazement of people and animals alike, conceives her plan to show to the world the true worth and significance of such a humble creature as Wilbur.

Charlotte's Web is an inspirational tale about the value of all life, and the intricate web that connects all of us to the miraculous source of being. All the performances are excellent, in particular Dakota Fanning (I Am Sam, Hide and Seek, War of the Worlds) as Fern, whose acting is finely nuanced. By the film's end she has grown stealthily and unostentatiously from pre-pubertal tomboy to teenager.

Just as convincing and delightful are the animals. Julia Roberts is warm and maternal as the softly-spoken Charlotte, Cleese is a riot as Samuel the sheep who thinks he is superior to his flock, while Buscemi's Templeton, the rat who despite his flagrant self-interest works tirelessly with Charlotte to save Wilbur, has genuine ambiguity and none of the excesses often associated with such characters.

Charlotte's Web is sumptuously filmed, much of it in Melbourne and country Victoria. Its technical effects are also breathtaking, creating a fairytale world that is at the same time real. But the film's greatest accomplishment is director Gary Winick's ability to provoke profound emotion in the viewer, without resource to sentimentality.

Charlotte's Web is similar in many ways to Walt Disney's Bambi (1942). Both deal with the cycle of life. Both acknowledge that death is part of life, and that life is worthwhile. But where Bambi argued for the collective, the impulse of the species to continue in the face of darkness (the forest fire and men with guns, both understandable symbols in a time of war), Charlotte's Web concentrates on the value of the individual, and the salvation that comes through love and friendship.

Just as importantly, in a world that is becoming insensitive to the sufferings of others, Charlotte's Web is a moving plea for animals to have their place at our table, and not simply as food.

Jan Epstein is an associate of the Australian Catholic Film Office.

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