At 50, Charlotte’s Web Still Spins a Sweet and Somber Tale

Movies Features animation
At 50, Charlotte’s Web Still Spins a Sweet and Somber Tale

There’s an argument to be made that E.B. White is one of the most important American writers of the 20th century, all the more so because he wasn’t flashy or ego-driven. Cartoonist and friend of White, James Thurber, said of the man that “he has avoided the Man in the Reception Room as he has avoided the interviewer, the photographer, the microphone, the rostrum, the literary tea, and the Stork Club. His life is his own.” A lifelong newsman who in his time wrote in Seattle and New York, White is probably best known for his children’s novels Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, cornerstones of the modern American kid lit canon and generally pretty fun little books for reading to your kids or letting them read on their own when they’re old enough.

But he was also the second author of The Elements of Style, a book originally written by William Strunk Jr. in 1918 and which White dragged out of mothballs to expand in 1959. The slim little volume shows its age these days, but it’s also one of the most useful books on the topic of writing anybody has ever written: I’ve more than once been given a copy when starting employment in a writing job somewhere. The Associated Press or New York Times or MLA style guides will dictate to you how to render numerals or street addresses, will yell at you about the serial comma, but White seemed interested in telling you how to actually write.

Knowing all this as you turn the pages of Charlotte’s Web is key to picking up some of the slyness hidden in plain sight in the children’s tale of a spider who, after working such PR magic that she keeps a pig from being turned to bacon, dies uncredited.

The barest bit of that bite makes its way into Hanna-Barbera’s 1973 film, which struggled to make it to theaters after changing hands creatively. It was one of the most poignant animated films of its era, falling into the time when Disney’s dominance over the cartoon musical flick was wavering and there was briefly a chance that maybe we could serve kids stories that acknowledged the real complexity of things like life and love and death and grief. Fifty years on, most animated movies that come out are barely concerned with any of that stuff.

White hated it, of course.

The movie just hits feature length by virtue of featuring a lot of musical numbers—incidentally one of White’s chief complaints. The tunes hit sometimes (just the sad and haunting ones, with the exception of Templeton the rat’s song about stuffing his face on garbage at the county fair, which is S tier and my personal anthem). It’s in service to a story that follows the book fairly faithfully, right down to dialogue and narration: Wilbur the pig (Henry Gibson) is the runt of the litter and destined to be turned into sausage gravy when he’s saved by the entreaties of the soft-hearted farmer’s daughter Fern Arable (Pamelyn Ferdin).

Figuring he’s teaching his daughter a lesson about farm living, Fern’s father allows her to raise Wilbur, but then sells him down the road to her uncle, Mr. Zuckerman (Bob Holt). It’s there, watched over by an oft-visiting Fern, that Wilbur befriends the spider Charlotte (Debbie Reynolds, known to you and everyone as Hollywood royalty and mother to Carrie Fisher). Wilbur knows it’s his lot in life to die once cold weather hits and Zuckerman wants some ham, but Charlotte decides to save her new friend. She does so with the mightiest weapon available to any of us, which is of course the written word. People will believe anything if it’s in writing, after all.

The animation isn’t anything to write home about: You’re not getting Bakshi-style trippiness, Disney-level polish, or anthropomorphic critters bursting with expression like those in the movies about to be released by Mouse House defector Don Bluth. The voice performances though, are top-tier: Reynolds is immortal in the role, but Paul Lynde’s scumbag rat Templeton steals the show as a self-interested hedonist with a perfect retort for everything.

The production of the film was a boondoggle, as evidenced by the involvement of Gene Deitch, a guy whose name keeps showing up in infamous works. At one point, White had worked closely with Deitch on concept art, all of which was discarded by the time Hanna-Barbera and Paramount Pictures were done with the project. Getting it out the door proved challenging, with the film’s release delayed into the coming year. When it finally did open, though, it was mostly to positive reviews.

But that was what the grown-ups had to say. The movie unexpectedly topped sales charts in 1994 again, right around the time the kids who’d grown up on it were probably doing things like, say, expanding their VHS collections to entertain their toddlers. My family had a weathered old VHS of it while I was growing up, part of the pile of physical media that’s vanished with this move or that parent remarrying. It’s telling that sitting with it again, I remembered not just every line but the inflection of every individual delivery, every single song lyric. The movie is unforgettable, even if the animation isn’t.

It’s not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a great writer. Charlotte was both.

On this anniversary of the film, there’s an added sadness in reflecting on the death of Reynolds, who once said that fans brought her more Charlotte’s Web soundtrack albums than any other kind of memorabilia when they sought her autograph. Reynolds’ daughter Carrie Fisher was said to have daily phone conversations with her mother, and after her unexpected death in December of 2016, Reynolds passed away mere hours later.

White once said that “All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.” Charlotte’s Web is a story about loving the world, its changing seasons, the foibles of its individual people and creatures, the bitter inevitability of its loss and the impossible miracle of its renewal and rebirth. But it was also, subtly and slyly, about how you can engender sympathy for one person by becoming their troubadour, about how the world’s very best and immortal writers are often those whose names are lost to time or subsumed by some more famous person’s name—only White would’ve written that, but as a former political speechwriter, I feel it in my marrow. It was a story about the inevitable necessity of death in the cycle of life: Charlotte is able to refrain from sucking the blood of flies in front of Wilbur, but she’s still doing it. One presumes Fern was not on a vegan diet during her short year in the barnyard.

The movie is about all that, too, when it quits singing about it and just tells White’s story.

Kenneth Lowe is hiding down here and he doesn’t want to be stepped on or kicked in the face or crushed or bruised or lacerated or scarred or biffed. You can follow him on Twitter @IllusiveKen until it collapses or read more at his blog.

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