When it was first published in 1952, Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White was popular with both children and adults. In addition to its literary awards, The New York Times called it practically perfect. It was probably a no-brainer to adapt it into a feature film, but would Hanna-Barbera be able to recapture the magic of the book?
First a quick rundown of the plot: a barnyard spider named Charlotte vows to save the life of a pig she befriends named Wilbur. Charlotte’s plan involves writing messages of praise for Wilbur in her web, which the humans interpret as a miraculous sign that there is something extraordinary about Wilbur. The rest of the story is worth discovering on your own. It is one of the best stories in children’s literature and the film does a fine job being faithful to the heart of it. Basically it is a celebration of friendship, one of the most heartwarming stories about friendship ever told.
The film is helmed by Disney-artists-turned-Hanna-Barbera-directors Charles A. Nichols and Iwao Takamoto, who do a surprisingly good job highlighting the emotions in the story after working on comedies and action shows like The Jetsons, Jonny Quest and Scooby-Doo. The animation is in the typically limited Hanna-Barbera style, but the film still looks beautiful. Many animators from Hollywood’s golden age are credited on this film, so even though the animation is stiff, the acting is still impressive.
The voice cast is pretty great. Pamelyn Ferdin as Fern is instantly magnetic with the sincerity she brings to the role of the girl who pleads for Wilbur’s life. Debbie Reynolds is flawless as Charlotte, Henry Gibson is empathetic as Wilbur, Agnes Moorehead is hilarious as the goose, and Paul Lynde gives it 100% as Templeton the rat.
The voice cast, as well as the writing, makes all the characters and their relationship with one another feel very three-dimensional.
Not surprisingly, the best scenes in the movie are the scenes that are the most faithful to the book. Nothing particularly creative is added to the story by Hanna-Barbera, but the film still manages to be emotionally effective and even funny, although the comedy is mostly lightweight.
I can’t discuss Charlotte’s Web without also discussing the music. The score by Broadway orchestrator Irwin Kostal elevates each scene significantly, and The Sherman Brothers (best known for the work they did for Disney on Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book and the Winnie the Pooh films) have created some of their best work here, “Chin Up” and “Zuckerman’s Famous Pig” being the highlights.
This film is accused of diverting from the story of the book with pointless musical numbers, but none of the songs seemed terribly out of place. The funniest numbers “I Can Talk” and “A Veritable Smorgasbord” are not very plot-related, but by the time we reach those scenes, the comedy relief is welcome. “We’ve Got Lots in Common” stands out as the most pointless, but it is still an amusing number. The main point of the film, to entertain, rarely goes off track.
This movie transcends its Saturday morning cartoon image with themes of growth, loyalty and death, which helps it resonate with both children and adults, and I think that makes it a pretty faithful adaptation of the book on which it is based.
Have you seen Charlotte’s Web?
Edited by: Kajsa Rain Forden