Friendship. Some, including myself consider this to be one of the defining measures of one's own existence and happiness. The world is a far better place if you find yourself surrounded by good friends. Existence is difficult without friends and the world would be a lonely and difficult place for the friendless person. When times get tough or difficult decisions arise, many times it is on the strength, trust and sacrifice of friends that one is able to transcend beyond those difficult times and return to happiness. A friend is sometimes not chosen, but discovered and at many times, a friend may end up being the least expected person. Somebody that is cast off and regarded as detestable may have the kindest heart and greatest capacity for self sacrifice. This is the theme behind the classic E.B. White story "Charlotte's Web," which was released in 1973 as an animated film and recreated in this 2006 live action film.
I grew up in a house where "Charlotte's Web" was watched once a year on television. The memories are slowly fleeting and I have a difficult time remembering what holiday the Hanna-Barbera animated special was attached to. I believe it was Christmas. To be perfectly honest, the storyline had started to leave my memories by the time I sat down and watched this live action retelling of the well loved family story. Growing up as part of a large family, there was never much opportunity to watch a movie in a theater and with only one television, the selection of an evening's entertainment was left to our parents. With my mother being quite fond of family friendly television and particularly of television that teachers a valuable lesson on life, "Charlotte's Web" was something that we simply did not miss growing up. Over the years, as we grew older and started to leave the family house, the nightly gathering in the living room became rare. Slowly, "Charlotte's Web" became a forgotten special by my family and seemingly by the network's that had aired it. Like memories, the story started to fade.
With not watching the film since the early Eighties, I was able to sit down and watch the Gary Winick directed live action film with a completely open mind and nary any memory of the original. I remembered a vague overview of the picture and knew the heart-tugging finale of the film, but that was about it. The film has been regarded fondly by many critics and well received as a solid film for the family. Paramount and Nickelodeon have gathered an incredible cast and pushed CGI animation to new heights with their new version of "Charlotte's Web" and it doesn't take long watching the film to see why so many people have had nothing but kind words for the film that teaches the value of friendship and the important lesson that no matter how different somebody is, they are special and could be the greatest of friends. From what I have seen, this 2006 version of the film is more faithful to the original book than the 1973 version. A few new characters have been added, such as the Crows, but other characters such as Templeton the rat are closer to E.B. White's story.
For those unfamiliar with the story of "Charlotte's Web" or for those that have forgotten much of the story, "Charlotte's Web" is the tale of a friendship between the unlikely pair of a spring pig and a barn spider. The pig, Wilbur (Dominic Scott Kay) is the runt of a litter of pigs and would have been killed early, but is saved by the young Fern Arable (Dakota Fanning). Fern is unable to keep the piglet as a pet, so Wilbur is given to farmer Homer Zuckerman (Gary Basaraba) to raise until he is old enough to be slaughtered for a Christmas feast. In the barn, Wilbur meets many of the barn's residents. They give him the cold shoulder as they know the fate that will befall upon him before the first snow hits the ground. Only the barn's most detestable creatures will talk to Wilbur. The first is a self-serving and egotistical rat named Templeton (Steve Buscemi). Templeton only cares about the food he will find and has no morals, scruples or apparent feelings. The second is the frightening, but intelligent and personable spider Charlotte (Julia Roberts). Charlotte agrees to talk to Wilbur in the morning after she creates a web and the two soon become friends, much to the dismay of the other barn animals.
One day, Templeton shows his complete lack of tact and lets Wilbur become aware of the horrible fate that will eventually meet him in the smokehouse. This terrorizes Wilbur and he is deeply saddened to know he will die. Charlotte makes Wilbur a promise that she will do something so that he can see the first snow and live, though she has no initial plan to do so. The other barn animals have slowly warmed up to Charlotte as she befriends the young and naïve Wilbur and comforts him during his sadness. The other animals include Gussy the Goose (Oprah Winfrey) and her mate Golly (Cedric the Entertainer), Samuel the Sheep (John Cleese) and the other sheepish followers, Bitsy (Kathy Bates) and Betsy (Reba McEntire) the cows and Ike the Horse (Robert Redford). When Charlotte finally concocts a plan that seems as if it may save Wilbur, the other animals rally behind her and even the selfish Templeton does his part to save Wilbur and guarantee a fresh supply of slop every morning.
The combination of live action animals and CGI critters is done remarkably well. Templeton the Rat was a complete creation of Tippett Studios. Wilbur was portrayed by a combination of thirty six real pigs and a CGI stand-in for the more difficult shots. Charlotte the Spider was CGI, but stylized to be as realistic as possible without completely frightening the pants off of young children. The Geese were animatronic puppets. There live animals and various technologies of artificial animals blend together in a manner that often makes it difficult to tell which animal is real and which animal is fake. I had expected the animated animals to stand out more than they did and aside from a few instances with Wilbur and one or two complete unrealistic Crow and Rat shots, they did a superb job of brining the barnyard to life.
This live action animated film is very good. I was hesitant to purchase the title for the purpose of this review, but after watching this ninety-six minute picture, I can say that my purchase was worth it. I am a person with an incredible group of friends and have always considered myself to be incredibly lucky to have them. They are from various cliques and social groups. Each of my friends are different. I have redneck friends, nerdy friends, older friends and friends from other social walks of life. They are all special and they are all important and though some friends have been hesitant to socialize with others, they have seen to look past their differences and become friends themselves. If it weren't for my friends, I'm not sure of what happiness or enjoyment of life I would have today. They have always been there for me, through the most trying times. This is the lesson taught by "Charlotte's Web" and it is an important one.
Wilbur is initially ignored by the other animals. They refuse to play with him and socialize with the eventual ham feast. The collective belief is that Wilbur is not worth the time. He finally befriends Charlotte and Templeton. Horses faint at the sight of Charlotte and she is considered a detestable creature, though she has a kinder heart than any of the other animals. She ultimately sacrifices herself to live up to her promise to Wilbur, who brought deeper meaning to her life by being her friend. Templeton has a rough and harsh exterior and he does endanger himself to help Wilbur. He does so in a manner that does not expose his inner self and he is considered a foul rat that should be ignored. These three animals that are once cast aside and ignored by the barn animals eventually create a bond that brings every animal closer together and they all become a cohesive family of friends.
The cast is simply amazing in "Charlotte's Web." Dakota Fanning is a wonderful young actress. Her star is rising and her portrayal of Fern is just another leap upwards for the young actress. Oprah Winfrey and Cedric the Entertainer are comical as the bickering geese couple. Reba McEntire, Kathy Bates and Robert Redford are all veteran actors whose involvement in the film only helps make it more special. John Cleese is hilarious as Sam the Sheep. The two crows that were added to the film are portrayed by Andre Benjamin (Andre 3000) and Thomas Haden Church. They had me laughing hard at their antics involving scarecrows. Steve Buscemi is an amazing character actor and I don't think anybody could have done a better job as Templeton. One day, Buscemi will be viewed as a Hollywood legend. Sam Shepard has a small part as the Narrator. I don't like Julia Roberts and this has been commonly documented. I tip my hat to her in her performance as Charlotte. Her warm demeanor and portrayal of Charlotte as being sensible and intelligent made the spider one half of the heart of this film. The other half of that heart was the young seven year old actor Dominic Scott Kay who voiced Wilbur. The young boy was nine years old when he was done voicing Wilbur and he did an amazing job for being so young.
I have no problem recommending "Charlotte's Web." It is a wonderful family film that teaches a strong moral. This DVD will soon belong to my Seventy Four year old mother and I know she will love it. The gathering around the television won't be nearly as big as it was when I was growing up. It may just be her and my eleven year old nephew sitting down and watching the film. She'll love it. The film teaches a strong and heartwarming lesson about life. It teaches about friendship and the value of each and every individual that one may come into contact with. It teaches about self sacrifice and loss. It teaches that the most unsuspecting person may be the most important person one may come across. "Charlotte's Web" is an older story. It has been retold over the years. It is, however, one of the best family stories you will run across and I was more than pleased to see that a modern and expensive Hollywood film can still be made in a manner where it is not only done well, but also have a deep meaning, even if it takes talking animals to teach that lesson.
"Charlotte's Web" is available as either a Full Frame release or a Widescreen (1.85:1) release. The 1.85:1 image of this CGI / live action film is extremely good. The colors are bright and natural and the detail is remarkably strong. Much of the film was shot in Australia, but some of the outdoor scenes where taken in my native Pennsylvania. It is a beautiful film and I've already discussed the convincing ‘fake' animals, but I must again applaud how lifelike they look. The DVD transfer is remarkably clean. There is no film grain present through the entire film and considering the film is only a year old, there are no other scars or marks on the film. There are a few night scenes involving Charlotte and her web. Black levels and shadow detail are very good and watching Charlotte spin her magical web feels special. I'll be looking forward to this film on the High Definition formats, but for now, this standard definition release is well above average in its visuals.
"Charlotte's Web" is presented with a clean and clear sounding Dolby Digital English 5.1 Surround mix. The film features more than a couple sound effects and these are rendered quite nicely. However, the real beauty of this film's soundtrack is the warm and engaging score by Danny Elfman. This is a dialogue heavy film and for most of the film, "Charlotte's Web" finds its characters easily understandable. Two or three words were hard to understand, and surprisingly, these instances came from human lips and not the digital creations. The annunciation by Dominic Scott Kay is very well. For being only seven years old, he speaks every word clearly and the 5.1 mix doesn't disappoint in bringing his strong effort to the home theater audience. Much of the film's soundtrack takes place in the front speakers. There are a few moments where bass is deep and responsive. Rear surrounds are used in a few sequences as well. The overall sound of "Charlotte's Web" is quite natural and warm. It is not an overly aggressive soundtrack, but guided by Elfman's score and Kay's performance, "Charlotte's Web" sounds just as magical as it needs to be.
The standard edition DVD is presented on a single disc, but contains a few very nice features that details the making of the film and its storied tale by E.B. White. Two commentary tracks are included. The first Commentary by Directory Gary Winick is engaging and the director shares a nice mix of information about the film that looks at the technology behind it, the difficulty of working with animals and technology and the comparison to the original story and the 1973 film. Winick was informative and easy to listen to as he discussed this modern retelling of a timeless tale. The second Commentary by Producer Jordan Kerner and Visual Effects Supervisor John Andrew Berton Jr. is far more technical, but again provides a lot of information on the making of the film. Winick had given a ten thousand foot view of the effects, but more detail is given here. The producer does go into the themes of the story and this was another worthwhile listen.
A few nice vignettes and short features are also provided. Making Some Movie (28:48) takes a look at the golden rule of "Treat People as you want to be Treated" and how it pertains to the book and the film. This documentary features many of those involved either behind or in front of the camera and what it took to retell the well-loved story to a new audience. This was a fairly typical EPK feature, but had a lot of nice pieces of footage and information on the making of this difficult undertaking. Some Voices (8:45) is a look at the voice actors and the fine cast that was behind "Charlotte's Web." I have to admit I am beyond impressed with the list of actors involved and this documentary details them. Flacka's Pig Tales (11:27) is not about Dakota Fanning's hairstyle in the film, but it looks at the difficult of working with live pigs through the eyes of one of the pigs, Flacka. Of course, Flacka is an animated creation for this feature. Cute.
Beyond the first menu page of special features is another list. How Do They Do That? (4:55) looks at animal trainers and their work to bring real animals into the film. I was surprised at just how many shots featured real animals. What Makes A Classic (5:19) breaks down the book and story and looks at why it is considered to be an American classic. A nice chunk of information about E.B. White and his story is given here. Where Are They Now? (6:54) is another short vignette that looks at the current locations of many of the animals used in the film. The Music Video "Ordinary Miracle" by Sarah McLachlan (3:02) is a nice song and the better of the two videos, including the companion Music Video "Make a Wish" by Bob Carlisle and Lucy Kane (3:15).
There is a third page of supplements on the disc. A Day at the Fair! (0:55) is very short and looks at images from the fair scene. It is essentially an animated photo gallery set to music from the film. Farm Photo Album is another photo album and requires the left and right arrow keys of the remote to navigate. The Gag Reel (3:04) is your typical gag reel and shows some mishaps with the animals and of course, the actors. There were a few good laughs in here. The Deleted Scenes (6:51) were a collection of six scenes that featured optional commentary by Director Gary Winick. They can be played separate or with a Play All selection. A few of these scenes were good enough to have been left in the film. The World Reading Recordfeatures information on the setting of a Guinness Book Record for simultaneous reading of "Charlotte's Web." This is an interactive list of all schools, broken down by state, that were involved in the record. DVD-Rom features include the Charlotte's Web Interactive Storybook Creator, Charlotte's Web Original Theatrical Web Site Archive and the Charlotte's Web Sega Game Demo. Finally, there are some Previews.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time watching "Charlotte's Web." It is a timeless tale that teaches the valuable life lesson on the importance of friendships and that everybody, regardless of appearance or social status, may make for a great friend. The film shows how friendship is needed to survive and that nobody makes it alone. The combination of CGI animals and real, living barnyard creatures is done seamlessly. A scene featuring Templeton the Rat pushing a living chick was the defining example of how well done the animation in this film was. I still am amazed at the cast included in this film. The live action and voice talent actors are all familiar faces or household names. I suppose when you do a well-loved story, it is not hard to bring about the best. I particularly enjoyed personal favorite Steve Buscemi and the job done by Francis Scott Kay. I thought Julia Roberts did a great job and considering my typical disdain for the actress, which says a lot. The DVD features a highly colorful and detailed picture and solid sounding audio. The special features take a couple of hours to sit through and that doesn't include the three hours of commentary tracks. This is a very nice package and great family enjoyment.