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Charlotte’s Web

This is the week for childrens literature to hit the big screen. The E.B. Whites classic Charlottes Web (opening December 15 throughout San Diego) joins Christopher Paolinis Eragon in theaters. This time, though, Charlottes Web arrives as a live action film rather than an animated one.

Dakota Fanning plays Fern in Charlotte's Web.

Charlottes Web was previously made as an animated film in 1973 with Debbie Reynolds lending her voice to the famous arachnid with a penchant for writing words in her web. That film also boasted the perfect voice casting of Henry Gibson as Wilbur the pig and Paul Lynde as Templeton the rat. This year the story has been brought to the screen by Gary Winick as a live action film enhanced by some computer generated effects.

E.B. Whites story centers on a young girl named Fern (Dakota Fanning) who rescues a runt pig from death. She raises the pig that she names Wilbur (voiced by Dominic Scott Kay). But once he starts to grow, she has to move him to her uncles farm. At the farm, Wilbur meets a barnyard of animals that initially take little interest in the friendly pig. But Wilbur slowly wins them over and eventually enlists their aid in trying to save him from the smokehouse. A spring pig, hes told, never gets to see winter snow. But spider Charlotte (voiced by Julia Roberts) has an idea: she needs to make the humans realize that Wilbur is such a special pig that they wont want to turn him into bacon for breakfast. She decides to highlight his uniqueness with words she writes in her web. But making the humans realize just how special their porker is turns out to be more difficult than any of the creatures anticipated.

Templeton the rat and Wilbur in Charlotte's Web.

This new Charlottes Web is a bland film adaptation of E.B. Whites charming tale. Theres nothing offensively bad but the film just feels homogenized so that nothing will offend anyone. Winick, who directed the sharply observed comedy Tadpole and the Jennifer Garner chick flick 13 Going on 30, takes a workman like approach top Charlottes Web. He and screenwriters Susannah Grant (In her Shoes, Erin Brockovich, Ever After) and Karey Kirkpatrick (who wrote the animated Over the Hedge) bring the novel to the screen with a determined but not very inspired faithfulness.

As Fern, Dakota Fanning turns in one of her better or should I say less grating performances. In films such as War of the Worlds or I am Sam, Fanning tried so hard to deliver the emotions demanded by the script and to pull on heartstrings that she ended up being annoyingly calculated. In Charlottes Web she delivers a more natural performance and proves likable. As the barnyard animals, Dominic Scott Kay is best as Wilbur while Julia Roberts (voicing a cutely animated spider) brings little life to the CGI creature. She sounds like shes reading her lines from the book. Maybe someone like Glenn Close could have brought more emotion or more warmth to the arachnid role. Robert Redford proves to be totally wasted as the horse whereas John Cleese scores some laughs as the stuffy sheep, Steve Buscemi does well as Templeton, and Thomas Hayden Church hams it up as a scared crow. But all in all , the talking animals fail to generate much personality because they are not visually rendered with much personality. Sam Shepherd is wasted as the narrator.

Charlottes Web (rated G) is definitely for a younger crowd.

Companion viewing: Babe, Charlottes Web (animated), Porco Rosso, Tadpole

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