The supernatural thriller The Rite is a different kind of literary adaptation a film not “based on” or even “inspired by” a written work but rather “suggested by” one. The degree to which this fictional film adheres factually to its source material Matt Baglio’s book The Rite: The Making of an American Exorcist is anybody’s guess. Fans of The Exorcist might argue that it’s more strongly “suggested by” William Friedkin’s 1973 horror classic than anything else.
Erstwhile unknown Colin O’Donoghue in his first feature role plays Michael a seminary student sent to Rome to learn the intricacies of demonic possession. A pronounced skeptic who isn’t even sure he believes in god much less the Catholic doctrine of exorcism Michael is inclined toward the more humanistic view of the “possessed” as simply disturbed or schizophrenic individuals. What they really need he insists is not a priest but a good psychiatrist. (That belief certainly won't endear him to the Church of Scientology.)
To rid him of such malignant pragmatism Michael’s headmaster (Ciaran Hinds) ships him off to serve an apprenticeship under Father Lucas (Anthony Hopkins) a Welsh Jesuit (shorthand for “eccentric”) and practicing exorcist. Having been around the theological block a few times Lucas reacts to Michael’s unbelief with wry nonchalance (a Hopkins specialty and the film’s most appealing trait); he knows that Satan’s arguments will prove far more convincing than any he might offer.
And Satan gets to work forthwith first using a pregnant Italian girl as his vessel then incorporating other representatives of the animal kingdom tormenting Michael with horned frogs and red-eyed demon mules. At first exhibiting admirable restraint director Mikael Hafstrom eventually employs just about every weapon in his terror arsenal bombarding Michael with harrowing visions and flashbacks (he grew up in a funeral home with an undertaker father played by Rutger Hauer who had a habit of bringing his work home with him) which offer ample opportunities for cheap scares. His trump card of course is Hopkins whose character eventually becomes possessed himself thus allowing The Rite to fulfill the Lucas/Lucifer conceit we all knew was coming.
The Rite varies wildly in tone with Hafstrom seemingly unable to decide if his film is to be a moody serious-minded psychological thriller or some campy outlandish horror-comedy. By the time Father Lucas becomes possessed and the reenactment of the first great celestial battle begins the film gives itself wholly over to the latter. As channeled by Hopkins the devil comes off as a less eloquent more vulgar version of Hannibal Lecter taunting Michael with naughty words and voraciously devouring scenery. The Dark Lord as a dirty old man is something of a novel concept I suppose. Scary? Maybe a little. Creepy? Oh hell yes.
Based on E.B. White’s enduring children’s story we meet Wilbur the Pig (Dominic Scott Kay) a runt who is saved from the axe by a little farm girl named Fern (Dakota Fanning). She raises Wilbur from infancy but eventually she has to send Wilbur over to her uncle’s neighboring farm since there’s no room for a pig in her house. There in the barn Wilbur meets the assortment of colorful animal characters: Betsy (Reba McEntire) and Bitsy (Kathy Bates) two pessimistic cows; motherly goose Gussy (Oprah Winfrey) and her henpecked hubby Golly (Cedric the Entertainer); Samuel (John Cleese) an uptight sheep; the skittish horse Ike (Robert Redford); the self-serving rat Templeton (Steve Buscemi); and of course sweet Charlotte (Julia Roberts) a spider with a heart of gold. When the naïve Wilbur finds out he might be Christmas dinner Charlotte makes a promise to her new friend that she’ll do everything in her power to make sure Wilbur sees the Christmas snow—and everyone ends up helping her out. What could be more fun than to voice a barnyard animal? Winfrey and Cedric’s geese banter is like an old married couple. Cleese gives Samuel the sheep a certain upper-crustiness. Redford is actually pretty funny as a horse who’s deathly afraid of spiders (“I’ll listen to you but I just can’t look at you”). Buscemi is a particularly nice choice as the sneaky rat Templeton who only thinks about filling his belly with food (no typecasting there we swear). For pure comic relief there are also two crows voiced by Andre Benjamin and Thomas Haden Church who just can’t quite get around the whole scarecrow thing. And as Charlotte Roberts has a truly soothing and loving tone sort of how you’d imagine it from the book. As for the human aspect Fanning continues to do what she does best playing Fern with the right amount of youthful innocence spunkiness and determination. Just wondering how we are going to handle it when this amazing little actress grows up and starts doing like adult things. Actually it is sort of a shame they couldn’t get a live-action version of Charlotte's Web made before Babe. Sure there was the 1973 animated cutesy film but a live-action adaptation of this timeless tale really should have been the standard by which all computer-generated talking farm animal movies would follow don’t you think? Instead Charlotte's Web pales ever so slightly in comparison. Oh well water under the bridge. Director Gary Winick (13 Going on 30) still manages to invoke the wonderful and uplifting spirit of the novel keeping faithful to the text in all ways. Visually the film is crisp and flawless in its execution particularly in the beauty and splendor of how Charlotte spins her webs and emotionally hearts will indeed swell and tears will flow. Charlotte's Web is the perfect family movie to inspire the next generation of young readers and viewers as well as for the rest of us who fondly remember the childhood classic.