U.S. Release Date: December 15, 2006
Distributor: Paramount
Director: Gary Winick
Writer: Susannah Grant, Karey Kirkpatrick
Producer: Jordan Kerner
Composer: Danny Elfman
Cast: Dakota Fanning, Julia Roberts (Voice), Oprah Winfrey (Voice), Steve Buscemi, Kathy Bates (Voice), John Cleese, Thomas Haden Church (Voice), Robert Redford (Voice), Cedric the Entertainer (Voice), Jennifer Garner (Voice), Reba McEntire, Andre Benjamin
Running Time: 1 hour and 53 minutes
MPAA Rating: G

Remake of a Children's Classic is Bland
by Scott Holleran

Lacking the bittersweet charm and dry, light humor of the book and the 1973 animated adaptation, the live action remake of E.B. White's children's story, Charlotte's Web, is bland.

Director Gary Winick (13 Going on 30) tries not to let fans of the classic coming-of-age farm tale down and the efforts are not completely wasted. Certain passages are well written. Certain scenes are well done. The book's ideas are presented.

Yet, from the first credits, with numerous corporate logos practically rolling through the opening narration, Charlotte's Web feels done by committee. Live action talking animals inject a computer-generated surrealism into what's essentially a simple but layered account of Fern the farmgirl (overexposed Dakota Fanning), her adopted pig runt, Wilbur, (the voice of Dominic Scott Kay) and Charlotte, a kind, intelligent spider (voiced by Julia Roberts) that puts a vocabulary to good use.

Charlotte offers salutations to young, coddled Wilbur when other barn animals—another slew of unrecognizable celebrity voices—shun the not quite porky pig. Wilbur is marked for bacon and only Templeton the rat (voiced with gusto by Steve Buscemi) has the decency to tell him.

Enter Charlotte, looking exactly like a spider with CG modifications to make the arachnid moderately pleasing to the eye (though she'd still be shooed from a shirtsleeve). She spins and she crawls her way into Wilbur's confidence, boosting his self-esteem by mirroring his better characteristics and literally spelling them out, a particularly appealing aspect of the novel that gets short shrift here, competing with the visual hijinks—Wilbur does a backflip—and miscast Fanning, who looks more likely to check her Blackberry than milk a cow.

Watching real animals talk inevitably recalls the smug Babe and that low-brow Doctor Dolittle remake, and it might have worked, as it did in the wonderful other E.B. White adaptation Stuart Little, but the barn chatter, modernized from the book, is flat, and it comes from characters that should have stepped aside for Wilbur and Charlotte. Crude humor replaces the book's wit and irony and deflates the effect of the movie's benign wordplays.

Good will triumphs to rally the herd—a horse, geese, sheep—to a decent finish at the county fair, though it's surprisingly lifeless given the outstanding source material. Wilbur seems more like a dippy kid than an innocent, lost soul and his character is less prominent—he doesn't grow very much—and, consequently, his bond with Charlotte is less than involving. For a movie that depends on that bond for a point of departure—and corollary sense of release—that is a serious shortcoming.

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