Charlotte 's Web (Gary Winick). 97 minutes. Opens Friday (December 15). For venues and times, see Movies, page 99. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Director Gary Winick 's vibrant adaptation of E. B. White 's children's novel is, at the very least, the best talking-animal movie in recent memory. Eschewing the genre's usual dated pop culture references and dumbed-down characters, Winick creates a world with imagination and wonder to spare. The story stays true to White's tale, in which spring pig Wilbur (voiced by Dominic Scott Kay ) is rescued by farm girl Fern ( Dakota Fanning ) from her father's axe. After Fern finds Wilbur a home in her uncle's barn, the young runt befriends the spider Charlotte ( Julia Roberts ) while trying to avoid a winter trip to the smokehouse. Along the way, Charlotte spins a masterful plan to save Wilbur, and each of the other barnyard animals learns a lesson or two about friendship.
While the 1973 version was traditionally animated, this film is more akin to 1995's Babe, deftly meshing live-action animals and actors with computer animation. The usually grating Fanning is nicely subdued here, and the eclectic voice cast (including Steve Buscemi , Thomas Haden Church and André Benjamin ) walks a balanced line between comedy and drama.
The film's family-friendly take on the cycle of life will certainly cause tears, but the refreshingly smart screenplay steers clear of sentimentality.