A well-spun web


If a pig can learn to talk, why can't a spider learn to write? The answer to that age-old query is given in "Charlotte's Web."

One rainy night, a farm girl named Fern (Dakota Fanning) prevents her father from killing the smallest in a litter of pigs that have just been born.

She names the piglet Wilbur, and begins taking care of him

herself. She soon has to leave Wilbur on her uncle's farm at her parents' request. When Wilbur is left alone, he cannot find any friends among the animals in the barn. That is, until he meets Charlotte (voice of Julia Roberts), a kindly spider who is more than happy to keep him company. Wilbur soon learns that he is fated to wind up as a Christmas ham, but Charlotte promises him that she will not let that happen.

By spinning messages into her web promoting Wilbur as a

special pig, she soon captures the attention of all of Somerset County.

Young Fanning is impressive as the most important human character in the film. With more dramatic, intense movies like "I Am Sam" "Hide and Seek," and "War of the Worlds" under her belt, it's nice to see Dakota play a normal kid.

The voice cast is excellent as well, including John Cleese as a stubbornly independent-minded sheep named Samuel, Robert Redford as an arachnophobic horse named Ike, and Kathy Bates and Reba McEntire as a pair of pessimistic cows named Bitsy and Betsy. Steve Buscemi almost steals the show as Templeton, a loudmouthed rat with a bottomless stomach, but even his comic charms cannot outdo the timeless character of Charlotte, who is well-voiced by Roberts. Dominic Scott Kay is also very good as

Wilbur. Oprah Winfrey, Cedric the Entertainer, Thomas Haden Church, and Andre Benjamin lend their voices as well, as does playwright/actor Sam Shepard as the narrator.

E.B. White's highly praised children's story makes for good material. Although a few of the elements are drastically altered from the original story, the crucial points remain intact. It bears a number of similarities to "Babe," with its rural setting and possible future for its protagonist. However, both talking pigs have their own special touches.

"Charlotte's Web" can certainly hold its own, and is an everlasting tearjerker about childhood, life and friendship.

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