The new, live-action version of "Charlotte's Web" has a weight problem. It's obese with talent.
The real, animatronic, and digitally enhanced farm critters all sound like famous people. Oprah Winfrey performs the voice of the mother goose figure, Gussy. Cedric the Entertainer is her mate, Golly. Robert Redford is Ike the horse. Kathy Bates and Reba McEntire do the voices of the cows Bitsy and Bessie. Steve Buscemi is Templeton the rat. John Cleese is Samuel the sheep. Supplied with E.B. White's ever eloquent 54-year-old prose, Sam Shepard narrates. And holy of holies: Julia Roberts is the divine Charlotte A. Cavatica, that crafty spider who devotes herself to saving her pig pal, Wilbur, from the slab.
If this sounds like inspired fun in the telling (and, my, does it), the movie is a chore to watch. Live-action is a nominal description, since much of the film is a point-and-shoot affair. The camera rests patiently in front of a particular animal while the famous person speaks, and because there is only so much, say, a live goose can do in a gauzy close-up, Winfrey's stuttering, down-home intonations overwhelm the shot.
This wasn't so with the animated version from 1973. There was harmony between voice and image. The fantastical particulars of that cartoon have hardened into this new movie's dusty approximation of actual farm life. Belching, selfish, and full of bad puns, Templeton the Rat may have been partly whipped up by a computer, but the slop in which he swims looks pretty real.
Dutifully directed by Gary Winick and adapted by Susannah Grant and Karey Kirkpatrick , this live-action version holds on to White's morality -- but that and advances in animation are all the movie has to justify itself. In the opening scenes, young human Fern (Dakota Fanning) discovers one night that her father (Kevin Anderson) is about to slaughter a newborn runt. "If I had been born small, would you have killed me?" she demands, vowing to love and care for the piglet herself. To the dismay of her mother (Essie Davis) , Fern names it Wilbur and takes him to school and pushes him in a carriage. (Fanning gives the part surreal emotional conviction; does she know Fern is 12 and not 42?)
In no time, Wilbur grows too big for bottles and baths in the kitchen sink and is shipped to Fern's uncle's farm, where the pig starts talking (10-year-old Dominic Scott Kay gives it his endearingly chipper all). Between visits from Fern, Wilbur makes new barnyard friends, including Charlotte, who know all too well that pigs like Wilbur are doomed. So do we. Right after Fern promises Wilbur that "I absolutely will not let them kill you," we get a crude comic shot of bacon sizzling in a pan. In any case, Charlotte selflessly concocts schemes to keep Wilbur from a similar fate: She tells the world he's special.
Both this adaptation and Roberts make Charlotte instantly lovable. But in reading White's story all those years ago, I remember being touched by Charlotte's almost desperate loneliness and her over-eagerness to have a new friend. Roberts, as lovely as she makes Charlotte, is the only actor in the cast not playing her assigned critter. Hovering high above it all, she's playing Julia Roberts. While there are plenty of touching moments, this Charlotte is missing the early chill Debbie Reynolds induced in the 1973 version.
Most of the movie's creative juice has gone into that digitally conceived spider, too. Charlotte's web-spinning is the movie's visual high point. Everything else photographed in the barn, besides the shenanigans in Templeton's lair, feels dead on screen.
Nonetheless, this is preferable to the new-agey action-adventure that White's "Stuart Little" became seven years ago. And where the camera has been placed may not be something the average elementary-schooler cares about, anyway. Indeed, woe be to the child who doesn't mist up at this movie, since it's been made if not with zip, wit, or imagination, then at least with sweetness. But I hope no one will think the film is an adequate replacement for White's book. That would be a crime.