Super Spider!

'Charlotte's Web' is pure family-movie magic

Charlotte's Web ranked right up there with The Hobbit and The Stand as two of my favorite books way back when. I also loved the musical animated movie, with Paul Lynde as Templeton the Rat. ("A fair is a veritable smorgasbord, orgasbord!") When word got out that they were doing a live-action film mixed with CGI special effects, my hopes weren't too high. I figured they would lose the essence of E.B. White's classic tale, Hollywood-ize the story and generally screw things up.

As it turns out, Charlotte's Web is one of the better films of 2006, and one of the very best family films I've seen in a long time. Populated with a terrific voice cast, and with the live action anchored by the now-wonderful Dakota Fanning, this is the movie to see this holiday season.

I know I sound like I'm trying for some movie-quote action in national advertising. I simply can't praise this enchanting film enough. It blew me away.

When a runt pig is about to meet the menacing side of a farmer's ax, Fern (Fanning) comes to his rescue, names him Wilbur and raises him like a house pet. When dad (Kevin Anderson) realizes the pig will soon be big and crapping all over the house, he tells Fern to take him to the Zuckerman farm across the street, where she can visit him all the time, and Dad won't have to deal with the smell. Wilbur tries to make friends with the sheep and cows, but they find the future lunchmeat annoying. When a spider named Charlotte (nicely voiced by Julia Roberts) greets him with "Salutations!" Wilbur makes a new friend who promises to do everything possible to help him avoid the slaughterhouse.

The film is visually exciting, with an emphasis on realism that might keep some spider-haters away. Let me make this clear: I HATE SPIDERS! HATE! I admit to being a little disturbed at the first sight of the hairy Charlotte all bulging with spider eggs and sucking blood out of flies. Ewww! But after a few minutes, I started warming up to the sight of Charlotte, and she's actually totally beautiful by the film's end. This doesn't mean I won't run and hide, crying in my closet, if a spider that looks like her should appear on my bedroom ceiling. I'm just saying the CGI spider managed to charm me.

Real spiders still suck. I hate them!

In case you are wondering, the festivities are not musical this time out, unlike the cartoon predecessor. With the exception of Fern singing Wilbur a lullaby, characters don't burst into song. That's fine by me. One musical version of this story is enough.

Wilbur looks and sounds an awful lot like his piggy predecessor, Babe, but that's a forgivable rip-off. (Seriously, though; Babe creator George Miller could sue and win.) In what stands as an example of perfect vocal casting, Steve Buscemi takes over the role of Templeton and makes it his own. Other voices coming out of animals include that of Oprah Winfrey as a goose, Thomas Haden Church as a crow and Robert Redford as a horse with a spider phobia.

Fanning seems to be aging in reverse. She used to freak me out with her wise-beyond-her-years approach to acting, but with this, and last year's War of the Worlds, she's coming off as an ordinary kid. Some acting coach must've told her to calm it down.

Credit director Gary Winick for mixing humans, animals and CGI, and managing to make something that's not only cohesive, but also enchanting. This film is so cool, it even has Sam Shepard as its narrator. Fear not, E.B. White: This film is worthy of your fine work.