It never fails, says director Gary Winick (13 Going On 30).
“I say to people I’m doing Charlotte’s Web and they always say, ‘Oh my god, that was my favourite book when I was a kid.’ And then they pause and say, ‘Please don’t screw it up.’ ”
For those (usually males) who didn’t read Charlotte’s Web as a child, it’s the story of a little girl named Fern and her pig, and the pig’s best friend, a spider named Charotte — all of whom live with the knowledge that “spring pigs” usually don’t live to see the first snow (what with the popularity of bacon and eggs).
With that in mind, Charlotte spins miraculous word-webs, extoling the virtues of this “radiant” pig, in hopes of earning him a pardon.
This new version takes a cue from Babe, with live actors (Dakota Fanning as Fern) and talking animals (voiced by the likes of Julia Roberts, Oprah Winfrey, Steve Buscemi, and Cedric The Entertainer):
There are so many things Dakota Fanning can consign to memory from the months she spent filming Charlotte’s Web.
There was the daily sight of kangaroos, wallabees and koalas on the road to the location outside Melbourne. There was the promotional trip to Tokyo where fans mobbed the little movie star.
But mostly, she’ll remember her mom, Joy Fanning, crying when she tried on a certain dress.
It was the yellow dress that Fern put on “because she knew she would see the boys at the fair,” as author E.B. White wrote.
“Mom cried when she saw me in that outfit,” Dakota says. “When I think of Fern, I always think of the yellow dress and red ribbons and when you get to bring that to life, it’s really something. And my mom, she got all emoootional when she saw it,” she says with a giggle.
And of course, there were pigs — about 50 piglets, stand-ins for the porcine hero Wilbur, each one losing its job after a few weeks of growth. (The producers say all the pigs were given stays of execution and ended up as pets).
“They were adorable,” Fanning says, practically squealing. “We got the pigs when they were, like, four weeks old. They were good pigs, and were all really cute. And they don’t smell. I think everyone thinks they do, but they really don’t.”
The comic-relief crow characters of Elwyn and Brooks are not from the book, but are an homage (E.B. White’s full name was Elwyn Brooks White). The Heckyl and Jeckyl-esque roles were played by Thomas Haden Church and OutKast’s Andre Benjamin, the latter of whom riffed about his “inner crow.”
“You don’t really have anything to go off of, so all the images of what you think a crow is, you kinda put that in your head. You go off on a name, so Elwyn. You think what does an Elwyn crow sound like? Not a John Crow or a Robert type of crow or a Guido, y’know, or a Russell Crowe. That’s a crow who’d throw a phone at you.
“I decided Elwyn is probably a thinker, but his brain is small so he’s not that smart. Me and Thomas, we recorded together, but it really wasn’t together. It was at the same time — I could hear him and he could hear me — across the country in different studios. But it helped us get into a rhythm so I could see how his Hardy would be to my Laurel.
“The story is kind of for little kids and, y’know, gettin’-up-there kind of kids, too. And for adults for nostalgic reasons. My mom read it to me and I remember the animated version. And my son is 9, and I bought him the animated version.
“But it’s really good for small kids because it would be their first introduction to dealing with death in a way. A kid, if they lose a dog or their grandparents, a fun film like this with animals that look beautiful, it kind of softens the blow.”
He had tons of screentime with Julia Roberts’ spider character Charlotte, and still has yet to meet her, talk to her or perform with her.
For that matter, when we interviewed him in New York, Steve Buscemi had only just met castmates Dakota Fanning and Andre Benjamin.
“I think Julia is a wonderful actress, and I look forward to working with her some day,” he quipped.
As for the role of Templeton the Rat, Buscemi will be the first to admit he doesn’t have leading man looks. But a rat?
“People keep saying, ‘How did you feel when they asked you to play a rat?’ ” Buscemi says.
“And I tell them, it’s not a rat, it’s the rat. It’s the coolest rat – although I’m sure Willard would have something to say about that. It’s a great character; it’s a great story. My only reservation about doing it was having Paul Lynde’s voice (from the 1973 animated classic) stuck in my head as Templeton.
“If you compare the Zodiac and the Chinese calendar, they say the Year of the Rat qualities do resemble Sagittarius, and I am Sagittarius. Charming and uh
… I’m only going to tell you the positive ones … intelligent, brutally honest, cunning.”
“Do I believe it? Well, definitely the ‘charming and intelligent’ part.”
Cedric The Entertainer
The only duo in the movie who actually got to record their animal voices together was Oprah Winfrey as Gussy the goose and Cedric The Entertainer as her henpecked husband Golly.
“It was good because we were able to get that bickering thing going. But y’know at the same time, she was Oprah, so it was like in real life, I kind of had to bow down,” says Cedric. “She wore the pants. If I were married to Oprah, I’d be the K-Fed of acting. Like ‘take care of me, honey.’
“She’s actually really intuitive and very nice, up close and payin’ attention. I had my 5-year-old son with me in the studio, and for someone who doesn’t have kids, she was real interested in him. She went up and introduced herself. And he barked.
“She looked at me and was like, ‘What is he doin’?’ I said, ‘Oprah, he’s 5, I don’t know! Sometimes they bark.'”