Terrific, radiant, humble - all words that sadly do not apply to Charlotte's Web, a brash adaptation of EB White's children's classic that leaves most of the original's charm and resonance on the cutting-room floor. A book that gently introduced generations of kids to the natural cycle of life and death becomes a CG-heavy caper unlikely to move even the wimpiest of ankle-biters with its Babe-style story of a spider who uses her enlarged vocabulary to save a plucky porker's bacon.
Initially filmed as a full-length cartoon in 1973, White's 1952 fable is here retooled as a vehicle for infant du jour Dakota Fanning, cast very much to type as a farmer's daughter who acts to rescue a runty piglet from her daddy's axe. Her role, however, is subordinate to that of Charlotte (voiced by Julia Roberts), the literate arachnid who stops that chopper from falling again by weaving complimentary adjectives into her web.
Alas, Charlotte too must share billing with a crass menagerie of barnyard animals whose pun-laden wisecracks and four-legged pratfalls take up an inordinate proportion of Gary Winick's feature. A few - Robert Redford's ornery horse for example, or Steve Buscemi's wily rat - justify their presence. Others, however (Oprah Winfrey's sassy goose, André Benjamin's jive-talking crow) skirt uncomfortably close to ethnic caricature, while John Cleese's prissy sheep is just plain baaa-d.
"A CRASS MENAGERIE"
If they'd stopped yammering for just a few minutes, White's heartbreaking ending might have retained its poignancy. As it is, it's little more than a blessed relief.
Charlotte's Web is released in UK cinemas on Friday 9th February 2007.