Nestled amidst the musty railway trunks, three-legged hatstands and grime-spackled bookcases of the Born Dancin' Office for Paranormal Investigations squats an old-fashioned rolltop desk devoted to research into mechanical oddities. Faded prints of steam-powered wheelchairs, eighteenth-century animatronics and automaton engineering butt dusties with giant Japanese robot technologies, furled parchments on Disney rides and a subscription to Tamagotchi Collector's Monthly. It's here you'll find a darkened pigeonhole containing all available information on one of the most successful robotic creations to emerge in recent years.
Dakota Fanning is a remarkable achievement, to all appearances a real life human child. It's only when she talks that one notices the gears and cam-shafts and flywheels which must be whirring away in there. Everyone knows that machines can't think, which is why she seems to have been equipped with a speaking mechanism produced by Hollywood media moguls, spouting flawless interview-speak with the confidence and lack of self-consciousness found only in the biggest of Tinseltown stars. She acts like an aging Katherine Hepburn in tween form. Maybe that's why the director of the new Charlotte's Web called her "the greatest working actor in the world" at the film's world premiere on Sunday. Certainly, it seemed that few, if any of the thousand-plus children in attendance were troubled by their little pint-sized Hollywood hero was a bunch of nuts and bolts. But I guess kids have always been able to identify with toys and dolls and puppets that way.
The film itself was pretty good, in an understated kind of way, but the afterparty was a scary ride into the unknown. Firstly: the buses. We were herded from the Regent that sunny afternoon into a squad of waiting buses, which felt more like school camp than anything else, kids clambering over the backs of seats, a gleeful ruckus of little 'uns who'd been sitting still for the last hour and a half and sure as hell weren't going to stay put any longer. Our coaches took us the the Collingwood Children's Farm, got up like Charlotte's Somerset County Fair, brass band, petting zoo and all.
Once there, the grownups (there were no 'adults' in this particular world) were freshened up with an endless supply of booze ferried out from lord-knows what thicket while kids mainlined bags of cotton candy, hulking golden donuts with a visible nimbus of saccharine glazing and bottomless red-cordial-infused ice buckets. Tipsy parents and sugar-soaked kiddies? Recipe. For. Chaos.
I'd had a bet how long it would take before we saw our first tantrum, and I was surprised that it took a good hour or two. Perhaps it was all the pony rides and miniature ferris wheels and carousels and fully operating lifesize Dakota Fanning which provided distractions for that time. Certainly, the animal nursery was popular, with different stalls featuring animal actors portraying the various characters in the film.
Here's Bitsy the cow, looking a little more formidable in real life.
Less successful was the lair of Templeton, the rat.
Note: if you look closely, you'll realise that THIS IS NOT A REAL RAT. Also, I'm pretty sure I saw a kid walking off across the field holding this stuffed rat later in the day.
I had a moment of perspective-sharpening after leaving the nursery to see two groups formed around separate objects of interest. I went to the smaller group, which pretty much consisted of me and about two other people all looking adoringly at this little fella, our Wilbur for the day. He's sleeping here, which, at four weeks old, is understandable.
A much bigger group was ooh-ing and aah-ing over the day's real Prize Pig, Young Miss Fanning.
I kind of found it sad that Dakota was getting so much attention because she was a) famous and b) could autograph things for people, when nobody particularly cared to appreciate the beautiful little Wilbur, who is a far more astonishing and heart-stirring creation than anything Hollywood could produce. Then again, it was Charlotte's writer E.B. White who'd always proposed that same old notion:
If you let nature play itself, it'll entertain you for the rest of your life.
Over the course of the day, I noticed that Dakota was just playing herself too, and that despite her flawless ability to emulate exactly what we imagine a celebrity to be, she's still just a 12 year-old kid having a great time. Maybe she's got a bit too much energy and enthusiasm, but with the sugar flowing on Sunday that could have been any kid there. And all of them, from the tottering toddlers to the tantrum-tossers, and even the beaming parents and coolsie blow-ins, were all pretty entertaining as themselves. Quite the cast, and no CGI effects needed. Sunny times.