As a farmyard community story, EB White’s much loved kids story fits somewhere between cutesy fantasy Babe and Orwell’s bleak political parable Animal Farm, with cheery talking animals sugar-coating a bittersweet finale that touches on practical matters of life and death.
Chirpy tot Fern (Dakota Fanning) rescues Wilbur the pig from a potentially cruel farmyard fate. This allows him time to become close friends with clever spider Charlotte and eventually transcend his environment through his friendship with assorted animals, including sarcastic sheep Samuel (voiced by John Cleese) and Ike, an easily frightened horse (Robert Redford).
Taking White’s tactful considerations of mortality intact from the book, Disney offshoot Walden Media bring their full CGI armoury to bear on the barnyard world, most successfully on the hard-to-visualise character of Charlotte herself. Lovable arachnids are few and far between, but voiced with wholesome clarity by Julia Roberts, any anxieties about her scaring children are quickly flushed away.
Director Gary Winick (Tadpole, 13 Going On 30) makes a wise choice by not re-imagining White’s familiar characters as Stuart Little-style dudes. And even if the narrative is slightly cloying and slow in patches, Charlotte’s Web should draw in children and nostalgic adults alike.