In this age of commercialized, prepackaged youthful rebellion, most children's movies wear obnoxiousness and preteen 'tude like badges of honor. So it's no particular surprise that the new live-action adaptation of E.B. White's children's classic Charlotte's Web comes complete with farting, belching, drooling, pratfalls, slapstick, and terrible barnyard puns. What's surprising is the relative restraint—the lack of mood-setting emo montages, skateboard tricks, and cow pies in the face. This take on Charlotte's Web has its tacky side, but when dealing with a book this simply sweet and this revered—and given what was done with White's similarly gentle Stuart Little only a few years ago—"It could have been worse" practically counts as high praise.
Dakota Fanning (the most unimaginative possible choice for the role) plays Fern, the farmer's daughter who rescues a runty pig named Wilbur by taking him in as a pet. Eventually, he winds up on her uncle's farm, where he's horrorstruck to learn that he's eventually destined to become bacon. Fortunately, a resourceful (and surprisingly creepy-looking) spider named Charlotte has a plan to save his life. The film is far too repetitive and emphatic in underlining the book's quiet messages, but it follows the plot faithfully, even incorporating a lot of the original dialogue and text.
When it strays from that text, it's mostly in the service of letting everyone in the celebrity-intensive cast get a meaningless word in edgewise. Remember the early '90s, when a whole generation of celebrities were having their first kids and suddenly appearing on Sesame Street? Charlotte's Web has that stars-jostling-for-kid-cred feel. Julia Roberts does warm, comfortable work as Charlotte, and Steve Buscemi seems born to play the sleazy rat Templeton, but when characters have to be invented just to provide roles for Cedric the Entertainer (as a gander), Kathy Bates and Reba McEntire (as cows), Robert Redford (as a arachnophobic horse), and André Benjamin and Thomas Haden Church (as dim-witted, scarecrow-obsessed crows), the stable starts to feel unnecessarily crowded. Charlotte's Web looks terrific. Its Babe-style blend of live animals and CGI assists is cute and fairly natural, and the bookending animation sequences are spectacular. Then again, thanks to all the unnecessary chatter and Danny Elfman's same-shtick-different-film score, it sounds pretty terrible. But in the end, the pros and cons all just add up to that same bit of modern-day kid-movie praise: It could have been so much worse.