Opening narration, care of Sam Shepherd, reminds us that not much happens in Maine's Somerset County. But all that changes with the birth of Wilbur (voice of Dominic Scott Kay), a runt-of-the-litter pig on the fast track to an axe's edge. Wilbur's life is spared by an affectionate young girl (Dakota Fanning as Fern), who leaves Wilbur to live on her uncle's farm across the way.
Wilbur is all innocence and naiveté, a fun-loving little hog stuck living with a handful of somber animals. The sheep, cows, geese and horses on the farm all seem bored by their tedious lives and decline to play with Wilbur. Camaraderie comes in the form of a motherly arachnid named Charlotte (voice of Julia Roberts). The tender bond that forms between Charlotte and Wilbur soon encourages the rest of the animals out of their collective funk and enlivens the farm.
Things begin to unravel with the appearance of Templeton (voice of Steve Buscemi), an ornery and self-serving rat who informs Wilbur that he'll likely end up on a breakfast plate before winter. But Charlotte refuses to give up on her pal and devises a "miracle" solution that may save his life. By weaving pro-Wilbur messages such as "some pig" and "humble" into her web, Charlotte hopes the local townspeople will see Wilbur's worth and spare him.
There is plenty that works in this theatrical adaptation of White's tear-jerking tale. The computer graphics that bring Charlotte to life are phenomenal, and Roberts' vocal interpretation of the character is perfect. And the powerful climax is still one of the most touching in modern fiction.
But aside from Roberts and Buscemi, the who's who of vocal talent is exorbitant and unnecessary. The voices of Oprah Winfrey, Kathy Bates, Reba McEntire and Robert Redford are lost in the shuffle, although John Cleese as a noble sheep, Cedric the Entertainer as a comical goose, and Thomas Haden Church as a frustrated crow fare better.
Adolescent jokes based on flatulence and slapstick may inspire younger viewers to point and chuckle, but those abuses of creative license seem like an affront to White's original vision.
Despite some juvenile humor and a red-carpet vocal cast, this "Web" is spun with emotional resonance that sticks.