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Review: 'Charlotte's Web' a pleasant picture

Story Highlights

• "Charlotte's Web" unassuming, decent entertainment
• Film based on famous E.B. White tale
• Stars include Dakota Fanning, Julia Roberts as Charlotte
By Tom Charity
Special to CNN
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(CNN) -- Kids are spoiled for choice these days. The sustained success of Pixar and Dreamworks Animation -- and in particular, a repugnant green Scottish ogre -- have combined to make children's films one of the fastest growing sectors in Hollywood.

So it was only a matter of time before E.B. White's revered tale, "Charlotte's Web," was hauled out for a computer-generated/live-action makeover. With book sales estimated at 45 million, the story of an unassuming pig called Wilbur and his arachnid literary friend Charlotte A. Cavatica is one of the best-selling children's novels ever written.

In case you've forgotten, Wilbur is the runt of a swine litter, adopted as her own by farmer's daughter Fern Arable (Dakota Fanning). Her parents assume she'll grow out of it, but in fact Wilbur grows faster than they imagine, and they insist he move out of the house and into Uncle Homer Zuckerman's barn.

That's where the lonely pig is befriended by Charlotte, a spider who must have been a bookworm in another life. When it seems that Wilbur's ready for slaughter, Charlotte intercedes to save his bacon by spinning a tribute in a web above his pen.

"Some pig," she writes. And the humans conclude that he must be. (Watch the movie trailer Video)

But why does Wilbur get the credit? Well, any screenwriter will tell you these injustices go with the territory.

Still, if Charlotte is an unsung hero as far as the Arables and the Zuckermans go, at least she is the title character -- the poetic soul at the heart of the book. Besides, she also gets top billing here, thanks to the mellifluous tones of Julia Roberts.

Evidently modeled on the familiar 1973 animated film (which featured Debbie Reynolds and Henry Gibson as Charlotte and Wilbur), but sensibly dispensing with the eminently forgettable songs, this new live-action version carries the additional burden of following in the hoofprints of a modern classic in the genre, George Miller's "Babe."

Pleasant enough in his way, Wilbur can't really compete with Farmer Hoggett's hero. Save for one early attempted prison break -- thwarted by hunger pangs within seconds -- he doesn't actually do very much. Mostly he just lies there. That goes for the movie too, which is sweet-natured but hardly radiant.

Indeed, there are more marquee names on the poster (the roll call includes Robert Redford, Oprah Winfrey, Reba McIntire, John Cleese, Kathy Bates, Thomas Haden Church, Cedric the Entertainer and Andre Benjamin) than there are laughs. Come to think of it, make that many more.

(For the record, the script is credited to Karey Kirkpatrick -- whose credits include "Chicken Run" and "Over the Hedge" -- and Susannah Grant, who wrote "Erin Brockovich." Gary Winick directed. Oh, and the pig itself is incarnated by 47 interchangeable porkers.)

"Charlotte's Web" may get more analysis than it deserves. In an era when kids' flicks are increasingly subjected to intense political scrutiny -- when a film about dancing penguins is decried as left-wing propaganda -- there will be those who will take comfort in this story's innocent affirmation of the miraculous (the tagline promises "Help Is Coming From Above") and its folksy celebration of the kind of small family farm which hardly exists anymore (set in Maine, the movie was shot in Australia).

But sometimes the simplest morals are the best. For myself, I think what's most valuable here is the gentle reminder that lives are short, friendship is priceless and words can make a difference. The movie "Charlotte's Web" isn't a classic, but the message is.

"Charlotte's Web" runs 97 minutes and is rated G. For Entertainment Weekly's take, click hereexternal link.

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Charlotte's Web

Dakota Fanning, as Fern Arable, takes a shine to a young pig.

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