Even cynics cry once in a while. For instance, one of my surefire triggers for waterworks is Charlotte’s Web, the miraculous children’s book by E.B. White that was originally published in 1952. A bittersweet story about friendship and mortality, Charlotte’s Web presents grown-up themes in a magical context, and the ending of the story slays me today as much as it did when I first read the book during childhood. I mention the power of White’s story to explain why I cut this animated adaptation a lot of slack, even though the film contains sentimental excesses that drift far afield from the melancholy textures of the source material. Speaking in the broadest terms, the filmmakers present White’s story intact—retaining even the most downbeat elements—so unnecessary filigrees such as boisterous musical numbers are merely interruptions. The basic narrative is so powerful that nothing can fully diminish its impact.
For those unfamiliar with the tale, the hero of the story is a pig named Wilbur. He’s born on a farm, but because he’s a runt, he’s plucked from the litter for quick slaughter. The farmer’s daughter, a young girl named Fern, pleads for Wilbur’s life and is given responsibility for raising him. As a result, he grows to maturity with a gentle demeanor since all he’s ever known is TLC. Alas, Wilbur gets sold to a neighboring farm, where he’s again lined up for slaughter. Yet Wilbur’s sweet nature endears him to other animals on his new farm, including a sophisticated brown spider named Charlotte A. Cavatica. Eager to protect her new friend, Charlotte spins a web containing the words “some pig,” which transforms Wilbur into a small-town celebrity. This special relationship continues through to a heartbreaking finale that says volumes about the cyclical nature of life. I’m biased, of course, but I would go so far as to say that Charlotte’s Web is one of the loveliest stories created by an American author in the 20th century.
Animation was definitely the right means for making a screen version of Charlotte’s Web, since it’s hard to imagine cozying up to a live-action arachnid. Alas, budget-conscious production company Hanna-Barbera never aimed for the same level of visual beauty as the folks at Disney, so this version of Charlotte’s Web is perfunctory in terms of images and motion. The character designs are fine, and the background settings get the job done, but the look of Charlotte’s Web is only slightly better than that of a standard Saturday-morning cartoon from the ’70s. Furthermore, the musical score is palatable at best. While songwriting brothers Richard B. Sherman and Robert M. Sherman (of Mary Poppins fame) fill their tunes with heart and playful language, their style doesn’t fit with the humble elegance of White’s storytelling. (Similarly, narrator Rex Allen’s aw-shucks line deliveries add a cornpone, Will Rogers-influenced flavor that lowers the intelligence level of the material.)
Happily, the best elements of this movie are the most important—the vocal performances. Henry Gibson, of all people, finds a kindhearted but not sticky-sweet pocket for Wilbur’s speaking voice, capturing the character’s innocence. Paul Lynde channels his queeny bitchery into the comic-relief role of Templeton, a rat who serves as Charlotte’s de facto errand boy. And Debbie Reynolds is just about perfect as Charlotte—amiable, sad, and wise all at once. She also gets to sing the most delicate song the Shermans wrote for the peace, a philosophical number called “Mother Earth and Father Time.”
Perhaps because this movie was the means by which many people first discovered White’s luminous story, the Hanna-Barbera version of Charlotte’s Web has enjoyed a long life in the marketplace, even earning a straight-to-video sequel, Charlotte’s Web 2: Wilbur’s Great Adventure, in 2003. (The sequel featured an all-new story, because White never wrote a follow-up book.) A live-action version of Charlotte’s Web was released in 2006, with an all-star cast including Julia Roberts and Robert Redford voicing animal characters rendered with CGI.
Charlotte’s Web: GROOVY