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Charlotte's Web

(2006) *** G
98 min. DreamWorks Pictures. Director: Gary Winick. Cast: Dakota Fanning, Oprah Winfrey, Dominic Scott Kay, John Cleese, Steve Buscemi.

After watching films like Underworld: Evolution, The Grudge 2, and Deck the Halls, film lovers could be forgiven for wondering, "What is Hollywood good for these days?" Charlotte's Web provides a handy answer. Like most Hollywood pictures these days, it exists because it bankably recycles a proven known entity, and it doesn't demonstrate the singularity of vision that we associate with American film artists like Spike Lee, David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, and Tim Burton. But competence and a core faithfulness are enough to communicate the simple charms of E.B. White's perennial children's novel Charlotte's Web to its rugrat audience. The rest—at the risk of offending its edible stars—is gravy.

Charlotte's Web gets the photo-real treatment in this lovely adaptation penned by Susannah Grant and Karey Kirkpatrick and directed by Gary Winick (13 Going on 30). Dakota Fanning plays Fern, a girl who at least temporarily saves cute pig Wilbur (voice of child actor Dominic Scott Kay) from the chopping block ("It's unjust!" she insists, seconds before a sly shot of her breakfast: sizzling bacon). Good-natured Wilbur wants to befriend the other farm animals, but mostly bonds with a spider named Charlotte, voiced by Julia Roberts.

One of the best of the anthropomorphic tales, Charlotte's Web is overdue for the aid CGI can afford to animal maws (the 1973 musical version was hand-drawn). The basically seamless and tasteful effects contribute to Winick's strategy not to get in the way of White's simply satisfying story. Granted, the new film exists in some retro universe in which American farmland is still viable as a family business, complete with blue sky, verdant land, red barn, and quaint farmhouse (filmed in Australia), but as long as we're enjoying talking pigs, who needs sad realites about the changing American landscape and economy?

The animals are the stars, of course, but character actor Gary Basaraba (Boomtown) ably conveys the vulnerable pragmatism of farmer Homer Zuckerman, and Fanning is excellent, such a good actress that she even manages to look excited when given ten county-fair ride tickets, when she'd obviously prefer a subscription to Shakespeare Quarterly or perhaps a book on Fermat's Theorem. Despite the fact that neither kids nor adults should need an explanation, Grant and Kirkpatrick inject a psychiatrist (Beau Bridges) to give name to Fern's "childhood phase" of talking to animals. "Sadly," he notes, "it's something that she'll grow out of."

As per Hollywood tradition, celebrity voices emanate from the livestock, including John Cleese as a sheep ever angry at his mates' tendency to follow blindly, Robert Redford as a nervous Horse, Kathy Bates and Reba McEntire as cows, Andre Benjamin and Thomas Haden Church as crows consumed with a scarecrow, Oprah Winfrey and Cedric the Entertainer as "married" geese, and Steve Buscemi in the pivotal role of Templeton the rat. Danny Elfman provides a lullaby for Fanning and, standing out from the effective score, choral music to accompany Charlotte's web-spinning "miracle" of nature.

The film is at its best when honoring White by teaching kids vocabulary (nocturnal, magnum opus) as the animals search for the just-so words to grace Charlotte's webby messages to the humans and by staying true to the book's bittersweet circle-of-life resolution. Yes, we get the same shopworn messages about friendship and being yourself, but we also get a graceful, useful expression of life's impermanence. Though not as fresh or idiosyncratic as its predecessor Babe, Charlotte's Web charmingly and convincingly brings the quality of a storybook—and a good one—to life.

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