In the barn, there's nothing new

Times Staff Writer

The new live-action rendering of E.B. White's perennial children's favorite, "Charlotte's Web," is so carefully spun that it's lifeless. Which is ironic because, since it was first published in 1952, the book the movie is based on has been a gentle introduction for children to the harsh realities of the cycle of life.

Adapted by Oscar nominee Susannah Grant ("Erin Brockovich") and "Over the Hedge" writer-director Karey Kirkpatrick, the film is faithful to its source material and mercifully makes no attempt to update it with contemporary slang. The familiar tale of a runt pig named Wilbur who is saved from slaughter by a young girl named Fern (played by Dakota Fanning) and befriended by a spider with an appreciation for language is much the same as you would remember from reading it as a child or seeing the 1973 animated version.

The action takes place primarily in a barn on the Zuckerman farm, where Wilbur (voiced by Dominic Scott Kay) goes to live when he gets too big for Fern to care for and where he is surrounded by a menagerie of critters who initially have no use for the little porker. It takes the observations of Charlotte (voiced by Julia Roberts), the titular arachnid, to make the others realize Wilbur's special qualities. Acting as a sort of de facto publicist seeking to keep her porcine pal from the smokehouse, Charlotte spins the words "some pig" into her web, gaining the attention of Zuckerman and the outside world.

The producers spared little expense in putting the voices of big-name actors into the computer-enhanced mouths of the animals. Besides Roberts, the vocal cast includes Robert Redford, Kathy Bates, Reba McEntire, Cedric the Entertainer, Thomas Haden Church and Andre Benjamin. All that star power, however, proves more distracting than anything else.

Doesn't that goose sound like Oprah? What's John Cleese doing in a barn in Maine? Only Steve Buscemi as Templeton the Rat, the scene-stealing, self-centered rodent who grudgingly helps Charlotte, comes anywhere close to delivering a memorable performance. Comparisons with "Babe," which did the talking animal thing far better more than a decade ago, only underscore Wilbur and friends' shortcomings.

Director Gary Winick ("13 Going On 30") and his production crew give the film a soft, timeless look, but the effect is largely flat. There is nothing discernibly awful about this "Charlotte's Web" other than it lacks the spark that would make it come alive on-screen. The ads promise magic, but apart from the requisite heart-tugging finale, what it delivers is uneventful.

MPAA rating: G. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes. In general release.

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