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Some pig There's a taste of the expected in 'Charlotte's Web'

In "Charlotte's Web," when Wilbur goes to the fair, he's stuck in a pen next to a big old pig named Uncle.

The name is appropriate. I'll say it now: Uncle!

I surrender. Between "Charlotte's Web" and the "Babe" movies, I'll never eat bacon again.

Who could? "Charlotte's Web" has scenes that could have been spliced in from "Babe." There's the little runt pig who never seems to get bigger, with big pink ears sticking out and smart, alert pig eyes focused adoringly on yours.

It also has the same '50s gloss. We glimpse the mother baking chocolate chip cookies, a gentle doctor played dreamily by Beau Bridges, the nondenominational Protestant church, endless green fields. The camera lingers lovingly and panoramically on these Norman Rockwell images. I felt like a kid from the Fresh Air Fund.

The scenery was great. As for the story -- that's a little trickier.

It's hard to make a movie about a book like "Charlotte's Web," an introverted, beautifully written tale about a child's imagination.

For one thing, spiders are a lot more attractive in dreams than they are in reality. The Charlotte in the new "Charlotte's Web" is a big, hairy, anatomically correct monstrosity.

"You helped show everyone that a spider can be beautiful," Charlotte tells Wilbur, the adorable pig. Uh, not exactly.

Rats, too, can be tough to take in the flesh. I liked Templeton when I was a kid reading the book, but I can't say I looked forward to his on-screen appearances. (Though I loved his marvelously creative warren, filled with gum wrappers, soda cans and other garbage he had salvaged. It reminded me of my desk.)

All the animals, of course, have stars delivering their lines. The great John Cleese is a sheep, a proper British bit of mutton. Robert Redford is uncharacteristically funny as the voice of Ike, the curmudgeonly horse. Oprah and Cedric the Entertainer are a hip pair of geese.

As for Charlotte, she's the voice of Julia Roberts. I'm sorry, that kills me. Was Roberts ever famous for her voice? No. (Or, as I've heard her say, "Y'know.")

They didn't need someone great looking! They could have gotten anyone! In that regard, the movie showed a certain lack of imagination. It showed it in a few other ways, too.

The lines were funny. Templeton, rolling in garbage, exults, "One-stop slopping!" But we've seen a lot of movies with wisecracking animals, and I'm afraid "Charlotte's Web" pays the price. I kept experiencing deja vu.

Cedric the Entertainer, for example, voiced adorable critters in "Dr. Doolittle 2," "Madagascar" and "Ice Age." Even little Dominic Scott Kay, the squeaky-voiced kid who lends his voice to Wilbur, also voiced an animal in Disney's "The Wild."

"Charlotte's Web" also relies heavily on stock kid gags based on animals' bodily functions. But there, I have to be forgiving.

If you can't have barnyard humor in a barnyard, where can you have it?

e-mail: mkunz@buffnews.com

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CHARLOTTE'S WEB

3 stars (out of 4)

STARRING: Dakota Fanning and the voices of Oprah Winfrey, Julia Roberts and Dominic Scott Kay

DIRECTOR: Gary Winick

RUNNING TIME: minutes

RATING: G

THE LOWDOWN: Adaptation of E.B. White's beloved book about a pig whose life is saved by a little girl and a resourceful spider.

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