Dir: Gary Winick. 2006.97mins.

While no live-action/CGI-hybrid about talking animalsis ever likely to match or surpass Chris Noonan's Babe (1995), the film adaptation of Charlotte's Web proves itself a pleasant and engaging addition tothe genre.

Since its publication in1952, EB White's classic tale of friendship has been translated into 23languages and has sold 45m-plus copies, creating a potentially huge, worldwideaudience when the film rolls out both domestically (Dec 15) and overseas (itopened in Australia on Dec 7 and plays international markets in early 2007). Evenwith family box-office successes such as HappyFeet stealing much of the holiday business, Paramount and UnitedInternational Pictures should see a healthy return on their investment, withheady DVD and video sales and rentals to follow.

The current picture marksthe second cinema incarnation of Charlotte'sWeb, following Hanna-Barbera'straditionally-animated 1973 production. This version stars Dakota Fanning asFern, the young farm girl who rescues a piglet from her father's axe and nameshim Wilbur. But it is a second - and even more unusual - friendship that liesat the story's heart: that between Wilbur and the spider Charlotte (voiced by Roberts),whose fancy web-spinning ultimately saves Wilbur from slaughter.

As a child's gentleintroduction to the concept of life and death, Charlotte's Web has, over the years, left many young readersweeping and the feature should generate some tears. The screenplay, from SusannahGrant (Erin Brockovich)and Karey Kirkpatrick (Chicken Run), closely follows the source material, even down tosome of the dialogue (Sam Shepherd provides voice-over to fill in some ofWhite's narrative), while injecting visual and verbal humour of its own.

Dakota Fanning's ability toinvest every character she plays with a convincing sense of childhoodspontaneity and a wise-beyond-her-years seriousness serves her well as Fern.

But this is one of thosetales where the humans take a back seat to the animals - and the results are mixed.Scott Kay perfectly captures Wilbur's exuberance and naivety. Some audiencesmay complain that his voice and intonation are too reminiscent of Babe's, whileothers will consider that a plus. As the methodical, unflappable Charlotte, JuliaRoberts proves surprisingly monotone at first, but she improves as the storyadvances, eventually projecting the maternal warmth that is so essential to thecharacter. Steve Buscemi seems a natural to play thesardonic, self-absorbed rat Templeton, and Thomas Haden Church and AndreBenjamin provide neat comic relief as the crows.

But part of Babe's triumph was the incrediblydistinctive personalities conjured by its talented voice cast and it'ssomething some of the personalities in Charlotte'sWeb lack: for example, Oprah Winfrey, Cedric the Entertainer, Kathy Batesand Reba McEntire suggest stereotypes rather thancharacters.

Technical credits are alllaudable, including Seamus McGarvey's cinematography(with pastoral Victoria, Australia standing in neatly for rural Maine) andDanny Elfman's lovely score, which seems to risenaturally from the gently rolling hills and dales.

Director Gary Winick (13 Going On30), handles his duties admirably, while five post houses shared visualeffects duties - Phil Tippett in San Francisco,Rhythm And Hues in Los Angeles; and three Australia-based houses, FuelInternational, Digital Pictures and Rising Sun - all coming together well underthe watchful eye of visual effects supervisor John Andrew Berton,Jr.

Production companies/backers
Nickelodeon Movies
Paramount Pictures
Walden Media
Kerner Entertainment

US distribution

International distribution

Executive producers
Edgar M Bronfman
Julia Pistor
Bernie Williams
Paul Neesan

Jordan Kerner

Susannah Grant and Karey Kirkpatrick from the book byEB White

Seamus McGarvey

Production design
Stuart Wurtzel

Susan Littenberg
Sabrina Plisco

Danny Elfman

Main cast
Dakota Fanning
Dominic Scott Kay
Julia Roberts
Steve Buscemi
Oprah Winfrey
Cedric The Entertainer
John Cleese
Kathy Bates
Reba McEntire
Robert Redford
Andre Benjamin
Dominic Scott Kay
Sam Shepard
Kevin Anderson
Gary Basaraba
Beau Bridges
Essie Davis
Siobhan Fallon Hogan
Nate Mooney