As children's entertainment goes, the hybrid live-action/computer-generated Charlotte's Web is basically faultless. There's a serene lesson about death and another about the contribution of spiders to the ecosystem; it makes learning new words seem fun and, dare I say, sophisticated; it's free from those horrible jokes designed to keep the kids twirling their cowlicks while their cynical guardians snicker (except for the cut to the plate of crackling bacon, which is taken from the book). But it's also insensitive to the things that make a movie burrow into your heart.
The barn, for example, is a barn (it doesn't look like home) and the smokestack is a smokestack (where's the menace? where's the Auschwitz?). The adult performances are so leached of detail the actors might as well be mouthing lines like their computer-assisted animal brethren. Kevin Anderson, as Dakota Fanning's father, is a lauded stage actor, but here he's so wooden he makes Fanning—colorless eyebrows and all—look brilliant.
It's a rare animal that looks cute gumming English words: A pig, luckily, is one. With fleshy faces and birthmarks conspicuously smudged over one eye, all 50 or so of the piglets playing Wilbur (Dominic Scott Kay, the only noncelebrity voice in the lot) succeed in not being irritating while "talking." The computer tricks also nicely coordinate the ram's seen-from-the-ground hauteur with John Cleese's acerbic voice. But the awkward cows and the clacking geese and the rat and the horse and the weirdly anthropomorphized spider? Why couldn't this movie have just been animated? Stranger illustrator Kathryn Rathke's sweet drawings (which appear with the titles and end credits) would have made an excellent template.