Seen by Martin before? Yes
What did I expect? A delightful animated classic.
What did I get? For what it is — a stirring and accessible fable with a bedrock foundation of homespun wisdom — Charlotte’s Web could hardly be better. Leading with its squarely midcentury, middlebrow aspirations, Hanna-Barbera adapted what was purportedly the best-selling children’s paperback of all time into a reliable classic. The songs are adequate, the animation appealing and above all legible; what persist are the friendly cast of characters, the clever dialogue, and the expansive worldview.
The movie’s central premise is gold: A spider that spins messages into her web! With an unaccountable fondness for a piglet! In Charlotte the spider and Wilbur the piglet, Charlotte’s Web boasts a powerful dyad of archetypes, next to which almost everything else, with the possible exception of Templeton the Rat, is forgettable. Charlotte is the idealized older best friend, a creature who has apparently unlimited reserves of knowledge and wisdom and yet accepts you despite all of your flaws. Wilbur, of course, is our clumsy, well-meaning self.
Less inspired than exquisitely competent, the animation is very appealing; the movie likely represented the outer reaches of Hanna-Barbera’s capabilities. In particular, Charlotte is eerily wonderful, simply drawn but ineluctably alien. Her face is an impassive, friendly mask — of a creature who cheerfully sucks the blood of houseflies and sires 514 offspring at a time.
Author E. B. White worked for years at The New Yorker, and he was also famous for publishing The Elements of Style, which became the standard usage guide in schools across the country. So it’s not too surprising that Charlotte’s Web is obsessed with words. Wilbur’s first song is the somewhat meta “I Can Talk,” in which he warbles, “Isn’t it great, that I articulate?” and so on. (White apparently didn’t much care for the songs.) Charlotte’s first line of dialogue is “Salutations!” — a term she must immediately define for the nonplussed Wilbur. As Charlotte ponders what to put in her web, the animals in the stall debate the meaning of words like “crunchy” and “radiant.” Later on we get this:
Charlotte: I’m versatile.
Wilbur: Does “versatile” mean full of eggs?
Lexicographical whimsy aside, the trick of Charlotte’s Web is treating the subjects of life and death as matter-of-factly as possible. All the wisdom comes in the form of Charlotte’s bemused admonishments, but my favorite deceptively simple gag comes when “Jeffrey” the newborn gosling gushes, “It’s big out here!” Yes, Jeffrey: that it is.
Given White’s employment at a famous weekly literary magazine, the spectacle of the farming folk confounded and dazzled by Charlotte’s messages suggests a latent media critique mixed in with the movie’s gentle realism. Saving Wilbur depends on PR, in other words trickery: the perceived is the real. But such darker hints merely add depth to what remains an enduring and improbably sunny tale about mortality.
What here smacks of 1973? The brazen assumption of the appeal of humanism, or else the vocal stylings of Paul Lynde.
IMDB score: 6.5
My score: 7
Directors: Charles A. Nichols and Iwao Takamoto
Writer: Earl Hamner Jr.
Starring: Debbie Reynolds, Paul Lynde, Henry Gibson, Rex Allen, Martha Scott, Dave Madden, Danny Bonaduce, Don Messick, Herb Vigran, Agnes Moorehead, Pamelyn Ferdin, Joan Gerber
IMDB synopsis: Wilbur the pig is scared of the end of the season, because he knows that come that time, he will end up on the dinner table. He hatches a plan with Charlotte, a spider that lives in his pen, to ensure that this will never happen.