We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
For more than half a century, the death of arachnoid spinstress Charlotte A. Cavatica in E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web has haunted baby boomers. Neither they nor their progeny need fear further trauma; Charlotte does die in Gary Winick’s live-action retelling of White’s 1952 classic, but the CGI is so florid, you won’t care. As every elementary-school teacher knows, the spider with the heart of gold who spins words into webs to save runty pig Wilbur from the frying pan has fewer legs than lessons about self-sacrifice and the power of friendship. However, the Oscar-kissed celebrity posse that voices the sassy barnyard animals in Charlotte’s universe can’t squeeze any pathos from a morality tale updated with fart jokes. Yes, that’s Oprah Winfrey as a goose, Kathy Bates as a cow, and Julia Roberts taking center-web as an unusually doe-eyed Charlotte, but even Steven Soderbergh’s muse disappears among a gang of emotionally absent protagonists. Steve Buscemi makes a valiant effort as cranky rat Templeton, but name brands like Robert Redford and André Benjamin are on hand only so that we register that they are on hand. Meanwhile, extended, arty shots of gossamer threads glistening in sparkling moonlight advance tech-fetish, not narrative; reduced to mere eye candy, Charlotte’s webs offer as much mystery as the Virgin Mary on a grilled-cheese sandwich. An acolyte of old-fashioned character development, White turned a bedtime story about a spider and a pig into an emotional powerhouse. But co-writer Susannah Grant, who provided the one-liners for Roberts in Erin Brockovich, is bored by her characters here; taking Charlotte’s sainthood for granted, she and Winick present her webs as proto-Christian miracles and explore physical comedy to entertain the ADD set. Even the usually precocious Dakota Fanning, playing out her ’tweens as weakly sketched farm girl Fern, is wasted. (Dominic Scott Kay delivers an appropriately sniveling Wilbur.) In her pièce de résistance, Charlotte spins the word humble to keep Wilbur out of the smokehouse, but this talking-animal fest is anything but. The cinematic pyrotechnics eclipse the story, making White’s otherwise timeless fable seem dated. Younger generations discovering Charlotte for the first time find only White-lite and will have to wait for the inevitable Nintendo Wii tie-in in order to get their little hearts pounding.