MOVIE REVIEW- Sugar-cured ham: What a boring web we weave

Don' t plan to serve ham at Christmas if your kids have seen Charlotte' s Web. If you plan to serve any other pork product, don' t tell the young'uns what's in it, unless you want to hear, "Omigod, they killed Wilbur!" 

E.B. White's classic children's novel was filmed in 1973 as an animated feature (with the voices of Debbie Reynolds as Charlotte the Spider and Paul Lynde as Templeton the Rat). This time it gets the Babe treatment, mixing live actors with animals that appear to be talking.

Technically things have advanced light years in the decade since Babe and its sequel, but because the improved technology is so impressive, some scenes are extended far beyond their natural length to show it off. (You can spin a web in the time devoted to Charlotte spinning hers.) This increases the boredom factor in a movie that' s hardly action-packed to begin with.

Story-wise, this G-rated picture makes sitcoms from the 1950s look edgy. It' s full of life lessons (and a death lesson) so sugar-coated (or sugar-cured) it's heartwarming for about five minutes and heartburn-inducing the rest of the time.

Dakota Fanning, the 12-year-old who has progressed in five years from "What a wonderful actress!" to "Oh God, not her again!" stars as Fern Arable, who rescues the runt of the pig litter her practical father (Kevin Anderson) is about to dispose of. She names him Wilbur and treats him like a baby until he gets too big to stay in the house.

Wilbur (voiced by 10-year-old Dominic Scott Kay) moves across the road to the barn of Fern's uncle, Homer Zuckerman (Gary Basaraba), where he tries to make friends with the other animals, who are standoffish at first. There are the geese, Gussy (Oprah Winfrey) and Golly (Cedric the Entertainer); the horse, Ike (Robert Redford); five sheep led by Samuel (John Cleese), who's forever trying to get the others to stop being followers; two cows, Bitsy (Kathy Bates) and Betsy (Reba McEntire); and the hated rat, Templeton (Steve Buscemi).

Not only are they unfriendly to Wilbur, but they inform him that as a spring pig he's likely to become the Christmas ham. That explains the nearby smokehouse, which looks like a gas chamber at a concentration camp. "Glad nobody eats cows," Betsy says.

The first friend Wilbur makes is Charlotte (Julia Roberts), whose web is in the entrance to the barn. She promises not to let them kill Wilbur and becomes his publicist, spinning the words "Some Pig" into her web. The humans look on this as a miracle and travel for miles to see the web. If its fame went any further, it would be a worldwide web.

But people have short attention spans and Charlotte has to come up with new words to spin until Wilbur is entered in the county fair, where he's the Maine attraction. A victory there will surely save "Zuckerman's Famous Pig" from the frying pan.

"We're all here," Fern' s father says, "because a determined little girl made a promise to a pig." (Wasn't that a line from the Kenneth Starr investigation?)

If the humans in Charlotte' s Web were as lifelike as the animals, the movie might have a chance, but they all have to be porcelain role models. Narrator Sam Shepard has a lot to say about the difference between ordinary and special, and while Charlotte' s Web may prove special to a few young viewers, it could hardly be more ordinary.