(2006) Family (Paramount) Dakota Fanning, Julia Roberts (voice), Steve Buscemi (voice), John Cleese (voice), Oprah Winfrey (voice), Cedric the Entertainer (voice), Robert Redford (voice), Kathy Bates (voice), Reba McEntire (voice), Dominic Scott Kay (voice), Kevin Anderson, Sam Shepard, Gary Basaraba. Directed by Gary Winick
The truth of the matter is that as much as I was looking forward to seeing this star-studded live action version of the E.B. White children’s novel, Da Queen had even more anticipation than I. There was, therefore, no question that we would be seeing it as soon as it was possible to see it in the theater, and eventually buying the DVD for it as well. Still, the cynic in me wondered; was it possible that the filmmakers could take a beloved novel and completely mess it up?
The plot is simple enough. Fern Arable (Fanning) saves a runt pig from being put down by her farmer dad (Anderson) and raises the pig, whom she calls Wilbur, herself. The two are inseparable, the pig even joining Fern at school. Eventually, the pig grows as baby pigs will, and Fern’s parents put their collective feet down. They send the pig across the road to Uncle Homer’s farm. Kind-hearted Homer Zuckerman (Basaraba) installs the pig in a large, comfortable barn and there Wilbur (Kay) meets the animals of the farm.
There’s unctuous Samuel the Sheep (Cleese), prissy Gussy the Goose (Winfrey), down-to-earth Golly the Goose (Cedric), wry Bitsy the Cow (Bates), neurotic Ike the Horse (Redford) and devious Templeton the Rat (Buscemi). However, Wilbur’s best friend of all is Charlotte A. Cavatica (Roberts), spider.
However, all is not idyllic in the barn. The other animals are aware of what happens to spring pigs on Zuckerman’s farm. They become summer bacon. Alarmed, Wilbur turns to his friends for help, and he finds it in the most unlikely of places – in the miraculous webs of Charlotte.
Most of my generation grew up reading the book and seeing the animated version of it, voiced by Debbie Reynolds (Charlotte), Henry Gibson (Wilbur) and Paul Lynde (Templeton). Quite frankly, it was one of my favorite books and I read it and re-read it regularly, and I’m sure there are a lot of people – a whole lot – that could say the same. I think I speak for the majority of us when I say that most of us who love the book would not take too kindly to having it messed with unnecessarily.
Thankfully, director Winick doesn’t. In fact, if recollection serves me correctly (and Da Queen bears this one out), I think this new version is if anything even more faithful to the book than the animated classic. Winick also takes the movie out of the depression era that the book was set in and makes it a bit more timeless, setting it somewhere in the late 20th century, but cleverly doesn’t give too many clues as to when the story is taking place. Rather, he puts the action in a rural setting that is nearly archetypal, so perfect as to be almost too good to be true, and as a result we feel comfortable in this world.
The problems I have with the movie are three-fold. The first is that some of the voice actors – not all, just some – come off rather flat. My favorite moments from the movie tended to come during exclusive live action sequences, as when Fern confronts her father about Wilbur’s fate, or Henry Fussy’s (Julian O’Donnell) awkward courting of Fern. Considering how much this movie and the story relies on the animals, that isn’t necessarily a good thing.
Second is Charlotte herself. She’s CG, and quite frankly, they do a little too good a job with her. Strangely, they give her almost human eyes rather than the multi-faceted insect eyes that spiders actually have. Rather than humanizing her, it makes Charlotte seem kind of creepy if you ask me. There were times during the movie that I half-expected Charlotte to pounce on some poor unsuspecting critter and eat it alive. Sorry, spiders aren’t cute and cuddly creatures and quite frankly, they should have kept away from close-ups of Charlotte. I’m sure some of the younger kids might have been freaked out a little bit.
The most glaring problem I had with the movie, however, is Wilbur. Child actor Kay doesn’t have the emotional depth to really make Wilbur live, as Henry Gibson did thirty years ago. I know that Wilbur is supposed to be a child, but quite frankly he’s also supposed to be “some pig,” among other things and Kay never makes Wilbur seem anything more than whiny and out-of-sorts.
Still, the good outweighs the bad in the movie. The live actors do a tremendous job and make up for some of the surprising star flops. Shepard’s narration is spot-on; he’s the perfect guy for the job. Winick also captures the mood and the charm of the novel nicely, which is really what you’re looking for most. The animated version stands up even today as a timeless classic; I don’t know necessarily if this version will get the same sort of distinction, but something tells me it will not. That doesn’t mean it isn’t entertaining and nearly perfect family fare at the right time of the year. Take a break from the big-budget CG animated features and check this out with your kids. It will give you, at the very least, a chance to revisit something beloved from your own childhood.
WHY RENT THIS: The live action version is more faithful to the book than the animated classic. Fanning is terrific in her role as Fern.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The child actor voicing Wilbur isn’t up to the task, sadly – but then many of the voice actors seem curiously flat. CG verion of Charlotte is creepy enough to freak out the smaller tykes.
FAMILY VALUES: Pretty much suitable for the entire family, although younger children might have problems with the realistic CG version of Charlotte.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The two crows, Elwyn and Brooks, are a tribute to the name of the original book’s author E.B. White, whose initials stood for Elwyn Brooks.
NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There are a pair of music videos, as well as a featurette that focuses on what happened to the more than 40 piglets that played Wilbur after shooting wrapped.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $144.9M on an $85M production budget; the movie was a flop.
FINAL RATING: 6/10
TOMORROW: African Cats