Directed by: Gary Winick
Starring: Dakota Fanning
With the voices of: Julia Roberts, Steve Buscemi, Dominic Scott Kay and Oprah Winfrey
Opens: Today, Janaury 26
The one about the spider who saves a piglet's bacon, "Charlotte's Web" is a perfectly lovely, if uninspired, movie that suffers from following on the trotters of "Babe," the one about the piglet advocate of barnyard brotherhood.
Ever since 1952, when E.B. White published his classic about interspecies cooperation on a Maine farm, the story of spider and pig has introduced generations of children to the cycle of life, love and loss.
Of a piece with the author's equally captivating accounts of animal magnetism, "Stuart Little" and "The Trumpet of the Swan," "Charlotte" was written about the time that White, a journalist for The New Yorker, reported on the creation of the United Nations.
It is thus tempting to see White's pig tale as the United Nations in a barn, an allegory of common cause that suggests true fellowship is about focusing not on the differences between creatures but on their similarities. No matter if you have eight legs, or four, or two, love and friendship is what sustains you.
When the new movie is among pig, spider, goose and horse - mouthed respectively by Dominic Scott Kay, Julia Roberts, Oprah Winfrey and Robert Redford - it is captivating.
Where the movie from filmmaker Gary Winick unravels is in its failure to seamlessly integrate the human cast - led by Dakota Fanning's Fern - with the enchanted animal kingdom.
Yes, there's an emotional connection between Fern and the runt piglet she rescues from the cleaver. But the filmmakers spend so much of their creative resources in making the animals three-dimensional that they forget to humanize the humans.
The humans are necessary only to admire the fine writing of Charlotte, the web- and word-spinner whose interventions on Wilbur's behalf enable the spring pig to live to see the winter snow.
Fern saves Wilbur from the butcher's block, then Charlotte saves him from smokehouse. It is the spider's bright idea to communicate the piglet's charms to his human caretakers by means of spinning positive descriptions of Wilbur on cobwebs above his head. With the right word, Charlotte saves the pig.
"Charlotte's Web" is at its best when it's in the barn charting the developing friendship of pig and spider, the latter a creature most of the four-legged critters love to hate.
The excellent voice work by all - including Steve Buscemi as Templeton the hoarder rat and John Cleese as effete Samuel the sheep - gives each animal a distinct spirit without giving them human attributes.
The movie may not be perfect, but it beautifully distills White's simple message: We are all born to die. But we are also born to befriend.