[Screen It]

(2006) (Dakota Fanning, voice of Julia Roberts) (G)

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Drama: A spider and various barnyard animals try to come up with a way to save a spring pig from meeting his demise at the end of the year.
Fern Arable (DAKOTA FANNING) is a young girl growing up on the farm run by her parents (KEVIN ANDERSON & ESSIE DAVIS). On one stormy night, she rushes down to the barn and sees that a sow has had a litter of eleven piglets. But that's one more than the number of the mother's teats, and so Fern's dad is about to end the life of a runt that will otherwise starve to death. Horrified, Fern says she'll raise the piglet on her own, but her parents become concerned by her strong attachment to Wilbur who turns out to be her only friend.

When he gets too big to stay in the house, however, Fern reluctantly takes him across the road to the farm run by her uncle and aunt, Homer (GARY BASARABA) and Edith Zuckerman (SIOBHAN FALLON). There, Wilbur (voice of DOMINIC SCOTT KAY) tries to make friends with the other animals, but they'll have nothing to do with him.

There's Samuel (voice of JOHN CLEESE) the sheep who wants his flock to stop following his every move; geese Gussy (voice of OPRAH WINFREY) and Golly (voice of CEDRIC THE ENTERTAINER); Ike (voice of ROBERT REDFORD) the veteran stallion; and cows Bitsy (voice of KATHY BATES) and Betsy (voice of REBA McENTIRE) who know Wilbur's fate as a spring pig -- the slaughterhouse.

Of course, he doesn't know that, but he does find a friend in the most unlikely of animals, Charlotte A. Cavatica (voice of JULIA ROBERTS), the barn's resident spider. The other animals don't like her, but then again they don't know her, and soon she and Wilbur are the closest of friends. Also aware of Wilbur's potential fate, Charlotte tries to come up with some way to make the humans realize he should be spared, a quest that soon involves Templeton (voice of STEVE BUSCEMI), a sarcastic and self-centered rat.

He only agrees to assist if it helps him in some way. That leads to several encounters with dimwitted crows Elwyn (voice of ANDRE BENJAMIN) and Brooks (voice of THOMAS HADEN CHURCH) while he's out searching for just the right word that Charlotte can spin into her web, hoping that might save her new friend.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
Jim Stafford once sang, "I don't like spiders and snakes" and aside from entomologist and herpetologists, it seems most of the public shares his sentiment. Not surprisingly, such feelings have long slithered and crawled their way into popular fiction, be that in literary, movie or TV form, with such critters near constantly getting the short shrift in terms of positive public relations. One need only look at the long track record of films such as "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Arachnophobia," "Eight Legged Freaks," "Snakes on a Plane" and plenty more for such cinematic evidence.

The exception to the rule, at least for spiders, has always been "Charlotte's Web." Penned back in 1952 by E.B. White, the story of a wise, caring and concerned arachnid who helps a young pig from ending up on someone's plate has long enchanted children with a positive view of the insect, both in original book form as well as the 1973 animated film of the same name.

Now another generation will be introduced to Charlotte, Wilbur, Fern and the barn full of talking animals through a new, live-action version of the tale that's fairly faithful to White's original work. Many unfamiliar with the earlier incarnations will likely equate this offering to this year's "Babe," and for good reason.

Both are set on a farm and include live-action animals that have been manipulated into appearing to talk. They also feature what wouldn't usually be associated with entertainment aimed at kids -- namely the specter of death in terms of both the natural course of living things, as well as general life on a farm.

Here, the story begins on the stormy night when the piglet Wilbur is born. Noted by the farmer as being a runt and one too many for the mother's teats, he prepares to walk out with the baby pig and an ax. His daughter -- Dakota Fanning who should be ready to pop into puberty at any moment and thus out of these too wise for their age kid roles -- rescues and raises Wilbur.

When he gets too big to live in the house, however, he's moved across the country road to the farm run by the girl's uncle. There, he learns the ramifications of being viewed as an outsider by the various farm animals. That is, except for Charlotte, the wise and friendly spider voiced by Julia Roberts. Realizing he's a spring pig and thus destined to the butcher's shed before the end of the year, she sets out to come up with some way to save her new friend, thus endearing them to the other farm animals and, in the process, to us.

The result is an engaging and generally well-made version of the half-century old story, filled with the right mixture of likable characters, comedy, pathos and just enough darkness to give it more depth than most films aimed at kids. While it might sound too grim on the surface for some younger viewers, it certainly isn't macabre. Instead, and for the most part, it's a celebration of life, filled with joy, hope, and friendship that will connect with most all viewers, regardless of their age.

Working from Susannah Grant and Karey Kirkpatrick's adaptation of White's words (many of which remain intact and are still as profound today as they were decades ago), helmer Gary Winick directs with a visually imaginative flair that helps boost what's otherwise a rather simple story (in terms of plot). Tech credits are superb, with the mixture of real animals, computer enhancements and any other special effects pretty much coming off as seamless.

Considering that many a talking animal pic oft gets undermined by the vocal talent hired to do the various character voices (due to the performers' voices being too recognizable and thus ending up being distracting), the film manages, for the most part, to escape that fate despite having a rather stellar vocal cast.

While I initially worried Roberts would have that effect voicing Charlotte, her smooth and calming delivery of the arachnid's lines works quite well, as does that from the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Robert Redford, and Cedric the Entertainer among others. Steve Buscemi and Thomas Hayden Church (as the narcissistic rat and hungry crow respectively) are a bit more recognizable to the ear, but get enough funny lines that one doesn't end up caring.

But most viewers will care about Wilbur's fate and Charlotte's efforts to save him through her creative web spinning, all thanks to the work of those both in front of and behind the camera. Likely to become (yet again) a children's classic, this latest version of "Charlotte's Web" successfully weaves its story in such a way that you can't help but be caught up in the proceedings. The film rates as a 7.5 out of 10.

Reviewed November 28, 2006 / Posted December 15, 2006

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