Considering it is one of the most famous and popular children's books of all time, it seems strange that Charlotte's Web, E. B. White's classic story of friendship and the cycle of life has only been adapted twice for the screen - a 2006 live-action version with CGI effects, and this earlier, simpler animated version produced by Bill Hanna and Joseph Barbera. The HB adaptation is of the limited animation type that Hanna and Barbera created when they moved from the MGM studios (where they made the classic Tom and Jerry cartoons) to television, where time and money did not allow for the artistry of the old days.
Still, the 1973 CHARLOTTE'S WEB has many things going for it, most of all the wise decision to stick close to White's original story. Had this been a Disney film, it is a near certainty that some more mature and disturbing moments, including the death of a major character, would have been white-washed so as not to upset the kiddies in the audience. But Hanna and Barbera do not shy away from the mature nature of White's book, nor do they fool around with the personalities of any of the classic characters. Wilbur the Pig is still a bit whiny and prone to fainting, Templeton the Rat will still not move a muscle unless there is something in it for him, and Charlotte the Spider is still the wisest and kindest friend a creature could have. The film follows White's story almost to the letter, and features most if not all of the scenes you may remember from the book, including amusing little side stories such as Wilbur's attempts to spin his own web and Templeton's "night to remember" scavenging food at night at the state fair.
Along with the strong story, the voice cast, a random Who's Who of 1970's personalities, goes a long way to overcome the limited animation. There's Pamela Ferdin (the voice of Lucy in several Charlie Brown TV specials) as the young farm girl Fern who raises Wilbur, Agnes Moorehead as the goose who hatches seven goslings, and Partridge Family cast members Danny Bonaduce and Dave Madden as Fern's brother Avery and the ram, respectively. Laugh-In's Henry Gibson makes a fine Wilbur, but it is two other cast members that really bring this film up several notches. The talented comedian Paul Lynde, a staple of 70s television, was the perfect choice for the scheming, self-centered Templeton, always doing the right things for the wrong reasons. Just hearing his voice makes me sad that we will never have another one like him. Debbie Reynolds, who reportedly told Hanna and Barbera that she would do the part for free (I'm sure she got paid anyway), is equally flawless as Charlotte. She has just the right voice and the acting skills to make you believe in a spider who would go out of her way to save the life of a pig time and again.
Some people complain about the limited animation, but it is what it is - 1970s animation. If you go into it expecting Disney quality stuff you will be disappointed. It is a step or two above standard TV kiddie fare of its day, and is full of color, beautiful backgrounds and nice characters designs. In truth, it is really the songs that hold this film back. The Sherman Brothers, Robert and Richard, were superbly talented songwriters responsible for such pop songs as "You're Sixteen" and "Let's Get Together", as well as "It's a Small World After All" and the scores of many a classic Disney film. But there are eight songs in the film, some repeated twice, and the action too often stops in its tracks for production numbers. Some of the Sherman songs beautifully capture the spirit of the book, especially "Mother Earth and Father Time" and "Charlotte's Web", but for the most part it sounds like the brothers were working on autopilot. "We've Got Lots in Common" is a rewrite of their "A Spoon Full of Sugar", while "Chin Up" strongly resembles "Supercalifragilisticexpialadocious!" in its rhythm, chord sequence and melody. Ditching half the songs would have improved the film greatly.
Nevertheless, the film is a faithful and earnest adaptation of one of the true classics of children's literature, and, as such, is well worth having in any movie collection, especially if you have kids, or are a kid at heart yourself. ½ - JB
IN SPACE, NO ONE CAN HEAR GOOD MOVIE QUOTES
"It's not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both."