Movie Review: Charlotte’s Web

Before I discuss this wonderful film, I must give it praise.

First, the movie stays faithful to the book, which has been a favorite for several generations. After watching the film for the second time this week, I read the book. It took only a little longer to read than it did to watch, although, granted, this time I was not reading it aloud to my children.

 I appreciate E.B. White's diligence at teaching his readers about the facts of life and about words. It is not a bifurcation, but a unification of all things physical and psychological. The movie takes the turning points in the book and plays them out nearly word for word — and words are important to what this story is about. Some critics have panned the movie for not updating the 1952 story by including contemporary slang and revising the story for the inane sake of being "creative" or "anti-establishment" or something else cockeyed. The purpose of the original story and this movie (through the mission of Walden Media) is to improve literacy among children. I'm all for updating myths and things that need it, but when we're recreating something so endearing as an E.B. White story, and the purpose is to encourage reading skills and literacy, changing the "words," especially when words are an essential part of the plot, would be just, well, stupid.

Another point of praise is that the casting is perfect. Fern, played by Dakota Fanning, has a more dominant role than in the book. This is an improvement, I think, that will help children identify more with the characters in the story.

The animation (mostly of animals' lips from live-action footage) is superb. Where larger elements (Wilbur's flip and Charlotte spinning her web) are involved, the effects are seamless and stunning on a large screen. It's just a joy. I could watch the segments of Charlotte webbing for hours, so intricate and fabulous is the detail that the animators included — you can see their love of their work in every frame. When Charlotte steps on a piece of hay, for instance, the hay gives, or bends. We also see in the animated segments a true depth of field. When the camera is on an extreme close-up of Charlotte's "face" the back of her abdomen is out of focus, just as it would be if we were using a macro lens in real photography. This enhances the "real feel" of the visuals, and allows us to identify with the characters much more.

A thank you is due to Mr. Winick, for allowing Mr. White's vision to prevail: the directing is transparent. We are not taken off on tangents or creative whims. We are told the story beautifully.

Charlotte's Web (both the movie and the book) are also rich with pro-life moments. Fern protects the "infant" Wilbur from certain death because he is not wanted. Like a sidewalk counselor in front of an abortion clinic she challenges her Dad: "Would you have killed me if I was small?" What some people may hear Fern say is, "Would you have killed me if I wasn't wanted?" In case you're wondering if the filmmakers added that line, E.B. White wrote in the book: "If I had been very small at birth, would you have killed me?" (italics are Mr. White's). Mr. Arable responds in the negative, but Fern persists, "I see no difference…this is the most terrible case of injustice I ever heard of." Mr. Arable gives in and then (again, this is in the book) delivers these two lines: "I'll let you start it on a bottle, like a baby. Then you'll see what trouble a pig can be," thus, setting up the argument necessary to fully appreciate the outcome.

Avery tries to kill Charlotte; Fern stops him, but by the story's end, Fern is honored by her father for her defense of Wilbur's life against the injustice her dad wanted to carry out. Wilbur takes his place in a baby stroller next to a doll. Fern cares lovingly for Wilbur, even if it is inconvenient and difficult.

Great respect is also paid to end-of-life issues, as Charlotte is allowed to die naturally and with dignity.

Wilbur, in turn, works hard to save Charlotte's egg sack from being left behind or eaten by Templeton, and watches over the sack with the help of the other animals until the eggs are hatched.

The goose, although discomforted by the eggs beneath her, is diligent in their care. The book uses these words and the movie conveys the sentiment: "After four weeks of unremitting effort and patience on the part of our friend the goose, she now has something to show for it." The birth of the goslings is celebrated.

In contrast to the pro-life protagonist, disrespect for life, especially under selfish motives, is made evident by the rat, Templeton — another example of how the best stories have the best and most "endearing" antagonists. Templeton despises life, and at every turn wants to devour anything in sight, including the goslings. In the book, E. B. White describes Templeton like this: "The rat had no morals, no conscience, no scruples, no consideration, no decency, no milk of rodent kindness, no compunctions, no higher feeling, no friendliness, no anything. He would kill a gosling if he could get away with it — the goose knew that. Everybody knew it."

Nevertheless, Templeton is cajoled to help Wilbur and Charlotte, but only out of selfish and gluttonous greed, of course.

Therefore, the moral premise for Charlotte's Web could be stated this way: Disrespect for life's miracles leads to loneliness and sadness, but respect for life's miracles leads to friendships and joy. I think you'll discover that this premise also holds for the storylines of Mr. and Mrs. Arable, Mr. and Mrs. Zuckerman, and the community of Somerset County as a whole.

Much is made in the movie (more than the book) about the miracles that haunt our everyday lives, if we'd only take time to look for them. Dr. Dorian (Beau Bridges) tells Fern's mother (Jessie Davis) that the spider web, even without Charlotte's words, is a miracle. He also suggests that he and others, like ourselves, probably can't hear animals talk because we don't listen closely enough.

The moment of grace occurs at 48 minutes (exactly ½ way through the film if you count the credits), when Fern, desperate to find a way to save Wilbur from the smokehouse, discovers that she can enter Wilbur in the 4H competition at the county fair, and if he wins a ribbon, he might not be slaughtered. From that moment on, all effort is aimed at preparing Wilbur for the fair, rather than the smokehouse.

Lastly, here is a delightful bit of trivia: What does E.B. stand for? Many may not know that E.B. White was a man. His first names were Elwyn Brooks. In the movie, the filmmakers honored E.B. White by naming the two black crows Elwyn and Brooks. Two of the most entertaining characters in the movie, they are not in the book.

This adaptation of a book replete with lessons of friendship, self-sacrifice, and appreciation for the miracles of life has kept true to the story and added terrific visual effects. Some pig. Some movie.

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