If you're going to remake a classic film, you can do it one of two ways: Either you take the path of doing something so completely different from the original that their mutual origin is practically indistinguishable, or you pay homage to the first by sticking as close as possible to where you started. Charlotte's Web, starring Dakota Fanning as the spirited farmgirl, Fern, who saves the life of a runty pig, and Julia Roberts as the indefatigable spider who weaves a magical web to save him again.

I was five when the classic animated adaptation of the E.B. White book came out; I've watched it countless times -- especially as my own children came to love the film and watched it over (and over ... and over) on videocassette and then DVD -- and it's always held a special place in my heart. So when I heard a remake was in the works, I was a smidge ambivalent. Why mess with something that already works so well? Who could ever replace Debbie Reynolds as Charlotte A. Cavativa, the arachnoid with a heart of gold? Julia Roberts, that's who.


Fortunately for kids (and their adults), helmer Gary Winick has brought to life the beloved tale in a rendition so faithful to the animated version that Earl Hamner, who wrote the screenplay for the 1973 version, has film story credit for this one, alongside scripters Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich, Pocahantas) and Karey Kirkpatrick (who wrote Over the Hedge, but we'll overlook that one for the moment). You know the basic story: Tomboy Fern (Dakota Fanning) rescues the newborn runt Wilbur from a swift death at the business end of her father's ax. When cute little Wilbur gets too old to keep as a housepet, Fern sells him to her Uncle Homer Zuckerman across the road and visits him everyday.

Everything about the film, from color palette to score, is reminiscent of the animated version, with whole chunks of dialogue neatly cut-and-pasted, and this is one of the few instances where this works quite well. There's no unseemly mucking about with the classic source material; Wilbur meets the other barnyard folk, misses Fern terribly, and makes a new friend in the form of a spider. When the other animals reveal to Wilbur that he is destined for the Zuckerman's Christmas dinner table -- as the main attraction -- Wilbur panics, and Charlotte vows to save her friend.

In the 1973 film, Paul Lynde played Templeton, the sniveling, nasal-voiced barn rat, in a role originally filled by Tony Randall (according to IMDb, Randall, when told to be more nasal, retorted that if they wanted nasal they should have hired Paul Lynde. So they did.) Lynde was the perfect Templeton: Nasally whiny, perpetually snide, and surreptitiously effeminate, he was Templeton the Rat in the same way Bert Lahr was The Cowardly Lion. The only actor I could imagine taking over the part of Templeton today is the one who was cast in the part, Steve Buscemi, whose distinctive nasal whine makes him the perfect choice to bring the role to life. Buscemi has a blast here, paying respectful homage to Lynde's origination, while adding his own twist to the part of "The Rat," like Templeton's narcissistic tendency to speak of himself in the third person.

Sam Shepherd fits nicely into Rex Allen's narrator boots, and Dakota Fanning slips on the role of Fern as neatly as if it had been written for her -- it would be easy to get tired of seeing her everywhere if she wasn't such a darn good little actress -- adding a certain 21st century spunk to the cute, budding animal activist who loves her pig. Lending their talents to the film in supporting roles are Robert Redford as Ike, the arachnophobic horse, and Oprah Winfrey and Cedric the Entertainer as bickering couple Gussy and Golly the geese (whose offspring looked more like ducklings than goslings to me, but it's been a long time since my 4-H years, so I could be wrong on that count).

Kathy Bates and Reba McEntire team up as a pair of wise-cracking, flatulent dairy cows (hey, today's kids need their fart humor), John Cleese adds his own brand of humor as the leader of a pack of sheep who can't stop following, and Thomas Haden Church and Andre Benjamin (who is everywhere these days) riff off each other nicely as a pair of crows sizing up a scarecrow. The barnyard creatures are brought to life in a style you can't help but compare to that other great pig fairy tale, Babe. But what of Wilbur and Charlotte?

It's a tough act to ask a kid to take over a role as famous as Wilbur -- one he's probably watched 89,000 times himself before auditioning for this film. Winick made a solid choice with 10-year-old Dominic Scott Kay, who's notched a lot of experience on his belt in the four years since his debut in Minority Report. Julia Roberts is simply sublime as Charlotte; perhaps motherhood has mellowed her a bit, for as Charlotte, she gently lulls Wibur -- and us -- like a mother reading her babes to sleep.

Charlotte's Web has all the rhythm and flow of a great bedtime story, and watching this incarnation of the tale was a bit like eating a batch of grandma's sugar cookies with a mug of hot milk -- warm and cozy and comforting, it wraps you up in a blanket of familiarity, while adding just enough of its own touches to distinguish itself as more than a mere clone. Hands down, the best family film I've seen all year, it was almost worth wading through the glut of mediocre-to-bad animated kiddie flicks to finally see one done right in almost every way.