- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 14, 2006

It’s difficult not to have high expectations for the new live-action “Charlotte’s Web” film. If you’re an adult, you probably have pored over the simple yet magical words in E.B. White’s 1952 book. Or you fell in love with the pig and his dexterous arachnid buddy through the 1973 animated film that brought those words to cinematic life. If you’re a child, you likely were charmed by “Babe,” the first real, live porcine protagonist to tell his story (and sequel) on-screen.

The standards have been set, and that bar is skyscraper-high.

Luckily, through the careful guidance of director Gary Winick and screenwriters Susannah Grant and Karey Kirkpatrick, this installment of “Charlotte’s Web” clears the mark with room to spare. The timeworn tale of the overwhelming power of friendship still carries weight — enough that in the darkened screening room, even several movie critics appeared to be discreetly wiping their faces and sniffling quietly at the film’s sad climax. (Or maybe that was just me.)

Dakota Fanning stars as Fern Arable, the charming farm girl who adopts a runty pig and names him Wilbur (voiced by Dominic Scott Kay). When she’s forced to send her pink pal to live on her uncle’s farm, Wilbur must find a new companion. He discovers one dangling right in front of him, in the unlikely form of a spider named Charlotte (Julia Roberts).

The barnyard animals soon discover that the adorable Wilbur may have a not-so-promising future as a side of bacon (it’s easy to forget how much mortality factors into this story), and Charlotte swings to the rescue, weaving him his ticket to freedom, one web at a time.

Mr. Winick and crew preserve the spirit of both the book and the previous movie while tweaking some aspects. Absent, for example, is the zany music accompanying the 2-D film, but its garishness and cartoony quality are replaced with a nice emotional weight. Because the characters are live-action this time (except the spider, Charlotte, who is realistically animated), it’s easier to invest in them. Easier to believe, if even for a second, in the miracle.

Also, because piglet Wilbur befriends both a spider and a rat — who, frankly, look pretty grotesque here — the story’s message of tolerance is even more pronounced.

The film boasts an all-star cast, including Oprah Winfrey and Cedric the Entertainer as geese, Robert Redford as a horse, and Kathy Bates and Reba McEntire as cows. Outkast’s Andre Benjamin even makes a cameo as a corn-obsessed crow.

One can’t help but wonder, because the supporting roles aren’t all that meaty, if it’s really necessary to pack in so many stars. Just because everyone else is doing it with their CGI films doesn’t mean it’s not a waste of talent. The strong leads here could carry this project without the padding.

Ultimately, Mr. Winick’s “Charlotte’s Web” casts a warm, nostalgic glow on the familiar tale. With the exception of a few too many juvenile flatulence jokes, the film’s appeal is universal.

***

TITLE: “Charlotte’s Web”

RATING: G

CREDITS: Directed by Gary Winick. Screenplay by Susannah Grant and Karey Kirkpatrick.

RUNNING TIME: 98 minutes

WEB SITE: www.charlotteswebmovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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