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Charlotte's Web

I've always been a voracious reader, but my first encounter with "Charlotte's Web" as a kid changed the way I read. E.B. White's classic children's novel has a habit of doing that. It's one of those rare pieces of genuinely great literature that leaves anyone who reads it permanently altered. Before "Charlotte" I spent my time reading "Choose Your Own Adventure" books about building robots. Afterward I found myself hungry for something more, and launched my growing reading skills at the works of young adult authors like Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume. From there my tastes blossomed even more, to the likes of Victor Appleton and then to legitimate literary masters like Jules Verne, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien. "Charlotte's Web" is a special book, the kind of book that opens minds. Since its first publishing back in 1952, E.B. White's masterwork has changed millions of young lives. How do you turn something so culturally transcendent, so significant, so perfect into a feature film? If you're director Gary Winick, you do it beautifully.

Winick's film doesn't just tell the story of "Charlotte's Web"; it captures the spirit, the essence, and the significance of E.B. White's classic. It gets the big picture, the broader strokes of what White's book does so well. It's more than a movie about Some Pig, it's a story about exalting in life, celebrating change, and finding hope in death. Charlotte's Web isn't just a good adaptation, it's a great film. A piece of moving poetry, the kind of movie that just might broaden young minds in the same way the book has for so many years.

The story is still that of a runty spring pig rescued from the axe by a young girl named Fern (Dakota Fanning). She names him Wilbur and at the urging of her father, sends him to live in the barn of the farmer across the street. Fern's at that age, the one where everything's about to change. One day she's going to wake up and realize she's a woman, but till then there's Wilbur. Separated from Fern except for her brief afternoon visits, Wilbur (voiced by Dominic Scott Kay) attempts to befriend the other animals in his barn, and fails. Until in an ordinary barn, an ordinary pig meets an ordinary spider, and something extraordinary happens. Wilbur finally makes a friend in Charlotte (Julia Roberts), the spider living in the corner of the doorway above his pen. When he learns that before winter he's destined for the slaughterhouse, Charlotte promises to save him. She always keeps her word. Her plan is to tell the world what she already knows. That Wilbur is some pig. He's terrific. He's humble. To save him, Charlotte spins those words into her web in a desperate attempt to convince farmer Zuckerman that Wilbur is worth saving.

Visually, the film is beautiful. Set in an indeterminate time period, Winick's film is filled with bright colors and the beautiful light of a nearly storybook perfect farm. The movie's done mostly in live action, with a little CGI mixed in for anything impossible to do with peanut butter on the gums of real animals. Most of this fits in seamlessly, and that which doesn't can be forgiven in a film with such energetic visual flair. When Charlotte spins her webs, Winick doesn't just fade in and out, or simply show her from a distance, his camera follows her on dizzying swing after swing as she connects each strand and builds her master creation. Later in the film, Winick uses that same technique to telegraph the toll the work takes on Charlotte as her movements slow and the camera's once thrilling flight through her work becomes a slow, painful toil.

Really, that's the point here. Winick uses the way his movie looks to capture the emotional impact of the book spectacularly. Charlotte quickly becomes more than a spider, she's a friend. Wilbur really is some pig, you understand what it is that Charlotte sees in him. Even the side story of Fern really hits. Winick follows her on her first Ferris wheel trip with a boy. It's almost heartbreaking, Fern grows up right before our eyes.

Some people seem to think that anyone can write a children's book. These days everyone's doing it. Maybe anyone can. But not anyone could have written a book like ‘Charlotte's Web', and not just anyone could have adapted it so brilliantly into a proper live action film. Winick's movie obsessively captures every moment of meaning and nuance from the novel and carries it right over to the screen with a renewed sense of energy and purpose. It's a beautiful piece of work, a fantastic film with great performances from actors like Dakota Fanning and brilliant voice work from the likes of Steve Buscemi (brilliantly cast as Templeton the rat) and Julia Roberts. Charlotte's Web is lyrical, and soulful, and more meaningful than most of the made for mom and dad only movies you're likely to see this year. If you love the book; if you love life, then you'll love Charlotte's Web.