If you’re new to this blog, you might not know that this year my New Year’s Resolution is to check out as many classical texts, movies, shows, and songs as possible. This gives me a lot of material to choose from, so the genre and medium of my reviews will be changing drastically from blog to blog.
Last week, I went back to my hometown to surprise my grandpa for his birthday (He is now 39 x 2). While at my parents’ place, I happened to glance over at what remains of our old VHS collection, and saw the 1973 Hannah-Barbara adaptation of Charlotte’s Web. I realized that I’d never read the book, and hadn’t seen the movie in what must be over ten years.
So here we are.
The 1952 Book by E.B. White:
My first stop was to check out the original Charlotte’s Web from my local library. I must have finished the book in about two days, because it was fucking fantastic. I’ve found that some kids’ books get worse as you age, but this is not one of those books. It’s beautiful, charming, emotional, and often hilarious (My favorite line was from the goose: “This is my idio-idio-idiosyncracy.” Gotta love mid-20th century 4th wall jokes.) And the book has some of the best I’ve ever read. It’s rare that you find a book that can really make you picture something from real life. I nearly cried at the end.
As for the themes, the story is even more adult than I remember it. It’s a story about avoiding death, but at the same time it teaches to accept death (ex. Charlotte’s “We’re born, we live a little, and then we die” speech.). It’s something that a lot of adults grapple with, often even more than children, and the book manages to portray life and death as being as natural and peaceful as the passing seasons.
The main antagonist in the book is, of course, the practice of slaughtering pigs, but there is a complicated secondary antagonist that seems to get a different ending in each of the Charlotte’s Web adaptations: Templeton, the rat who lives under Wilbur’s slop trough. In the original book, Templeton gets his cummupence for his selfishness and gluttony in a nuanced way. Nothing zany happens to him, but the fails to heed the old sheep’s advice that gluttony will be bad for his health. It’s heavily implied that his own sins will be his downfall. More on Templeton’s various fates later.
Overall, the book is absolutely worth a read. I give it:
Entertainment: 5/5 Intellect: 4/5 +1 for originality +1 for idea fodder Overall: 11/10
The 1973 Film by Hannah-Barbara:
Of course, after reading the book, I wondered, “Well, how well did that short film from my childhood adapt the story?” Many parts of the book seemed familiar (I was proud of myself for remembering the final word in the web), and I recalled faint scenes of a line of blue rats, the word “smorgasbord,” and a pig dangling from the ceiling. I had to rewatch that short.
Turns out, it wasn’t a short, but a full-length feature film. I did a little research and found that it was produced by none other than Hannah-Barbara (the cartoon company responsible for Scooby Doo, The Jetson, The Flinstones, and Yogi Bear), with music by the Sherman brothers (the famous Disney song-writing duo) and consultation from E.B. White himself.
At the time, the film was criticized for poor animation, and E.B. White himself was disappointed in the additional songs (it seems very much like a Saving Mr. Banks situation). I didn’t find anything particularly wrong about the animation considering its age, but that might be due to the fact that the only animations I’ve seen from the 70s are Hannah-Barbara cartoons (plus some relatively unsuccessful Disney movies). I did like how they managed to make Wilbur look obviously older throughout the film, despite his voice actor never changing (btw, the voice acting was excellent).
I did agree with E.B. White on the songs’ annoyance. I normally love songs in films (it always surprises me when others don’t). When I was a kid, songs were pretty much required in order for me to like a film. I would spend hours memorizing the songs to every direct-to-DVD Disney sequel my family owned, and you can bet that a lot of those had been written by the Sherman brothers. But most of the songs in the movie seemed unnecessary and…cheesy (see “We’ve Got Lots in Common”). Seriously, what pig knows the word “loquacity” without knowing the word “Salutations”?
And honestly, despite my obsession with musicals as a kid, I don’t remember ever even trying to memorize the songs from this film. But there were a few that I liked this time around: “Charlotte’s Web,” “Mother Earth and Father Time,” and “Zuckerman’s Famous Pig.” The former two seemed relevant and in step with the story/its themes: “Charlotte’s Web” and “Mother Earth and Father Time.” Apart from being very beautiful, those songs did a great job of driving home the story’s themes on time, growing up, growing old, and dying.
Aside from that, the movie was one of the most loyal book-to-movie adaptations I’ve ever seen (1st place goes to the 2009 Disney’s A Christmas Carol). 90% of the dialogue is straight from the book, and there are very few additions to the story (not sure how I feel about Jeffrey the runty gosling…). They did leave out some scenes (it is a movie, after all), but I don’t think they left out anything important.
In fact, the movie even fleshed out a few things that seemed glazed over in the book itself: particularly the Henry Forester subplot. In the book, this young boy isn’t even seen until the fair, and then suddenly he’s the light of Fern’s life. In the movie, Henry has an actual personality and (gasp) interacts with Fern before she gets a crush on him.
The movie also gave Templeton a slightly different ending. Instead of being vaguely fated to eat himself to death, Templeton has rat pups with a female. I guess this is more accurate to real life? A rat with that much ensured food would of course, reproduce far more often. Does it present a better lesson for kids? I’m genuinely not sure. The movie seems to imply that he’s reformed, and now cares about something besides himself. But implication doesn’t seem nearly enough. At this point, I didn’t really like either ending for Templeton.
Overall, I actually think the movie did a better job of driving home the time/life/death/growing up themes, whereas the book did a better job with small details (dialogue, charm, etc.). For that, I’d actually recommend giving your kids this movie as opposed to reading the book to them (That is, if you had to choose. Obviously “both” would be best.). Perhaps I just made Mr. White flip over in his grave, but that’s my opinion.
Entertainment: 4/5 Intellect: 4/5 +1 for idea fodder (note that I'm not assigning a +1 for originality, since that's the original author's department) Overall: 9/10
The 2003 Direct-to-DVD Sequel: “Wilbur’s Great Adventure”
A mere thirty years after the 1973 premier, Paramount Pictures decided to make a direct-to-DVD sequel of Charlotte’s Web.
Now, I had absolutely no idea this film existed. I stumbled across it while looking up reviews for the 1973 film. The film takes place shortly after the last film leaves off. Wilbur is hanging out on the farm with Charlotte’s three daughters, who each have pretty cardboard personalities (the daredevil, the klutz, and the goth) and absolutely horrible designs. A sheep with black wool is born into the flock, the other sheep refuse to play with him, and so Wilbur becomes his best friend. When the lamb gets fold to another farm, however, Wilbur gets worried and decides to go on a dangerous trek to go visit him.
It’s about what you would expect from a direct-to-DVD sequel with that title. There’s almost no consistency with the original OR WITH ITSELF (the farm changes layout, backstories are erased, and so on). But the writers clearly knew some things from the original book that wasn’t in the 1973 adaptation (ex. Charlotte’s cousin catching a fish in her web). This tells me that they somehow managed to read the original source material and translate none of it into their own movie.
Lindsay Ellis (aka The Nostalgia Chick) said once that direct-to-DVD sequels are often like TV shows: they have the stakes of TV episodes, are often produced by the same people, and carry some of the more commonplace themes (friendship, honesty, things like that). This is probably the first time that I’ve watched one of these films as an adult, and not as a child, and now I can definitely see where she’s coming from. In the movie, “Wilbur is worried about his friend,” one of the little spiders “can’t spin a web right.” Things like that.
But I will say, the movie did do a good job of weaving together LOTS of different mini-conflicts. The movie sets up and resolves: Wilbur being a pushover/coward, one of Charlotte’s kids being bad at making webs, a black lamb not having any friends, a fox stealing hens and eggs, AND Wilbur’s life being threatened again. But the movie also sets up a few conflicts it doesn’t resolve, as well as one conflict that seems pointless: the cow with the sour milk, and Fern’s giant tomato.
As for all the technical stuff, the animation was up a notch from the 1970s movie, but still probably quite low by 2003’s standards. The design of the spider girls were absolutely horrendous. They looked more like Buzz on Maggie characters than anything else. The music wasn’t too bad. I even liked one of the songs a little. But I also swear they used stock background music at one point, though I can’t for the life of me figure out where I’ve heard it before.
How does it compare to the book? The only relation this has to the original book is that it showed Wilbur being a bit more of a pig than the 1970s film, which seemed to treat him more like a pristine housedog than a hog. The book had a lot of that, too: being unable to resist food and frequently getting hungry, rolling in mud and manure, things like that.
Overall? I think the movie is ok for kids, but if you’re a teen or older, I wouldn’t recommend it.
Entertainment: 3/5 Intellect: 3/5 Overall: 6/10
The 2006 Live-Action/CGI Movie by Paramount Pictures:
I remember seeing commercials for this movie as a kid. I would have only been about eight at the time, but I remember already being fed-up with live-action remakes. I didn’t think the Charlotte’s Web remake would be any good, but apparently it got some pretty good reviews.
I can understand why. This movie doesn’t feature any songs, and instead uses its time to hit pretty much everything that was in the book. And I mean everything. I can’t actually think of a scene in the book that wasn’t in this movie. Whereas the 1973 film left out the visit to the psychiatrist’s and Templeton’s tunnel network, this film left them in. Even the f*cking barn swing is in there for a few seconds! The CGI and designs are really good, and the whole time I’m convinced I’m looking at real animals talking. They didn’t use as much exact dialogue from the book as the 1973 film did, but they did paraphrase it really well, making it sound more in-step with the time period (though I should add that the dialogue didn’t feel outdated in the 1973 film, either).
They only left out the goose’s idio-idio-idiosyncracy (but they seemed to add it in halfway through the film? It seemed very awkward). But they even added in a few nice touches. I liked that they added in the smokehouse, as well as Fern changing from overalls to dresses once she starts to like Henry Forester.
I didn’t like what this film did with Templeton. He didn’t entirely get redeemed, and he didn’t entirely get his comeuppance. He just kind of exists there at the end. It’s implied that he might give into the power of friendship, but it’s still left ambiguous and unanswered.
“What’s that about the power of friendship?” you may ask. Well, this movie decided to change the theme from justice, death, growing up, and the cycles of nature to “friendship.” In this film, the barn is a very boring place and none of the animals are really friends with each other, until Wilbur comes along and makes the barn a happier place to live. I didn’t like this theme nearly as much as the original’s, probably because it’s a theme that we hear so much about from such an early age. Existential dread is something most adults still grapple with, the E.B. White managed to tame that fear in a kids book about talking animals. This film just took the safe route, so I felt that it didn’t give me the same emotional impact.
Overall I liked it, but I wouldn’t put it above the other movie or the book, mainly for this last reason. If the 2006 movie would have kept the themes from the original book, and laid them on heavily like in the 1973 movie, it would have been my top pick by far. But instead I’m going to have to put it below both the 1973 movie and the original book (above only the direct-to-DVD flick).
Entertainment: 4/5 Intellect: 3/5 Overall: 7/10
This mega-review has definitely made me realize that my ranking system is still not quite satisfactory. In terms of points, the original book wins. In terms of which I would actually pick, if I could only choose one, it would be the 1973 movie.
- The book
- The Hannah Barbara film
- The live-action film
- The direct-to-DVD film
- The Hannah Barbara film
- The book
- The live-action film
- The direct-to-DVD film
Unfortunately, there is one piece of Charlotte’s Web media that I failed to obtain: the play. But I don’t feel like a failure for it. This has been one of the most interesting reviews I’ve ever written, simply because I got to experience so many different versions of the same story, all from different time periods, and all within the same three days. I might do something like this again in the future.
On that note, stay tuned for “Babe” and “The Sheep Pig” reviews. I’m on a roll with these existential-dread stories about runty pigs…
Lead Image courtesy of Wikipedia