Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Charlotte's Web (1973)
Studio Line: Paramount Pictures

Miracles do happen! E.B.White's timeless children's story comes to life in this colorful animated musical. You'll laugh and sing along as Charlotte the Spider teaches Wilbur the Pig, Templeton the Rat and the other barnyard animals lessons on friendship, trust and love.

Director: Charles A. Nichols, Iwao Takamoto
Cast: Debbie Reynolds-Charlotte; Charles Nelson Reilly; Paul Lynde-Templeton; Henry Gibson-Wilbur; Rex Allen-Narrator
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9; audio English Monaural, French Monaural; subtitles English; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 15 chapters; rated G; 94 min.; $24.99; street date 6/19/01.
Supplements: “Meet the Animals” Game; Theatrical Trailer.
Purchase: DVD | Charlotte's Web - E.B. White

Picture/Sound/Extras: B-/C/D-

Prior to Babe, the world’s favorite lovable talking pig was named Wilbur. He was the central character in E.B. White’s popular children’s book from 1952 called Charlotte’s Web. Like pretty much everyone else of my generation - and probably those before and after me - I adored CW when I was a kid, and I also recall that I really enjoyed the animated film adaptation that came out in 1973.

It’s not always the brightest thing for me to revisit childhood favorites now that I’m an adult, but I’m not always the brightest guy; see my reviews of Jaws 2 and The Towering Inferno for similar escapades. Nonetheless, I thought it’d be fun to give CW a look, especially because I’ve developed a strong affection for animated films over the last few years.

Most of my fondness lies for the cartoons created by Disney, which was not the studio that produced CW. That fact became readily apparent as I watched this substandard product. In 1973, Disney was at a low point, but while that year’s Robin Hood certainly didn’t compare with their older films, it looked like Pinocchio compared to the stiff and lifeless animation of CW.

This movie was produced by the good folks at Hanna-Barbera, a group best known for TV shows like The Flintstones and The Jetsons. I simply adore The Flintstones, which I believe was one of the all-time great television programs. However, most of H-B’s other work left a lot to be desired, and even though I loved The Flintstones, I can’t argue that it was a very sophisticated or accomplished product in regard to its art and animation.

All during CW, I saw the studio’s roots in TV cartoons. While the work found in CW was no worse than anything I’ve witnessed in H-B’s television material, it wasn’t any better either. Frankly, I think that’s a bad choice. If you’re going to plop something on a movie screen, it should live up to a higher standard; TV-level animation isn’t good enough for theatrical issues. Granted, that didn’t stop stiff material like Pokemon: The First Movie or Rugrats In Paris from performing nicely at the box office, but I was definitely disappointed by the rough and lackluster art seen in CW.

As for the rest of the film, CW follows the story of Wilbur the pig (Henry Gibson). Born a runt, he’s destined for the farmer’s axe when that man’s daughter Fern (Pamelyn Ferdin) intervenes and saves little Wilbur’s life. She raises him as her own until he gets old enough to be sold. Fern’s intercession doesn’t work this time, and Wilbur heads for the farm of her uncle Homer Zuckerman (Bob Holt).

There Wilbur makes new friends and has a generally good time as he hangs around with Jeffrey the gosling (Don Messick), Templeton the rat (Paul Lynde), The Goose (Agnes Moorehead), and Charlotte the spider (Debbie Reynolds). Unfortunately, Wilbur is again destined for the slaughterhouse, as Zuckerman plans to kill our little pal once he becomes fat enough.

Charlotte determines to save his life, so she concocts a plan. She spins a web and writes “some pig” in it. Zuckerman and others see this “miraculous” occurrence and Wilbur becomes the talk of the town. However, this does little more than briefly delay his execution, so Charlotte has to create additional web-based billboards to ensure Wilbur’s continued survival.

This story of friendship, love and sacrifice had a lot of potential for depth, and I believe that White’s book conveyed those elements nicely. I haven’t read it for many years, but from what I recall, it was a rich experience. The film version of CW doesn’t do much to live up to its source material. At best, this was a watchable and mildly enjoyable diversion that failed to resonate.

On the positive side, some of the movie’s vocalizations are good. Reynolds adds a nicely weary and matriarchal tone to Charlotte, and her compassion comes through well. Lynde also adds modestly wicked comic relief to the piece, as his nasty side gives Templeton a fun edge.

Otherwise, the remainder of the cast seemed to be somewhat bland. Gibson lacked conviction as Wilbur; he just appeared callow and whiny, to be honest, and even his joyful side failed to come across as invigorating. Most of the other actors came from the Hanna-Barbera stable, and you’ll recognize some familiar voices. None did anything to embellish or enliven their roles. Fans of The Odd Couple will note that Ferdin acted as Felix’s daughter Edna on a few episodes; she also did the voice work for Lucy in A Boy Named Charlie Brown.

CW features songs from the Sherman brothers, the men responsible for the tunes found in Disney flicks like Bedknobs and Broomsticks. Unfortunately, their work here was subpar as well. You’ll be hard pressed to find anything hummable in CW, as the songs consistently seemed bland and generic.

As a whole, that phrase describes much of Charlotte’s Web. I wouldn’t call it a bad movie, and it’s something that I’m sure little ones will enjoy. The film has some cute segments, and it never was anything less than tolerable. However, it rarely was anything more than tolerable, either, as I thought the project lacked charm and verve. I wanted to like Charlotte’s Web but I found the film to be rather flat and uninvolving.

The DVD:

Charlotte’s Web appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Though the movie presented a generally good picture, a variety of small issues detracted from the experience.

Frankly, it appeared that some of the problems related to the fairly clumsy art done for the film. As I noted during my discussion of the movie, it wasn’t a very neatly-executed piece of work; no one would confuse the animation done for CW as being something from Disney. Clean-up animation seemed to be especially problematic, as lots of stray marks and lines remained in the film. It can often be difficult to distinguish between sloppy art and true print flaws, but I feel that many of the problems I witnessed during CW were the result of cheap animation.

Sharpness generally appeared acceptably crisp and detailed. Some softness occurred at times, but those concerns seemed to relate to the original artwork; the material was created with such a thick and bland look that occasional scenes came across as ill-defined. However, the majority of the movie provided an accurate and distinct appearance. I saw no signs of moiré effects or jagged edges.

Colors were a strong aspect of the DVD. The film boasted a very bright and vivid palette, and the disc usually replicated these nicely. On a few occasions, I thought the colors looked slightly muddy, but as a whole, they came across with fine accuracy and brightness, and the movie showed some very clear and vibrant tones. Black levels also seemed to be fairly deep and rich, and shadow detail appeared clean and without any excessive murkiness; nighttime shots showed good depth and they presented an accurate image.

Print flaws caused the biggest concerns throughout CW. As I indicated, at times it could be tough to distinguish actual print defects from the stray marks leftover from the animation process, but there were quite a few examples of the former that seemed to be readily apparent. The picture occasionally looked grainy, and a mix of blemishes cropped up throughout the movie. I saw various examples of scratches, blotches, white spots, speckles, grit, and a few thin lines. The movie also showed a modest flickering during Fern’s first song. For the most part, the flaws remained within acceptable limits, and considering the sloppiness of the product, it was never going to look terrific under the best of circumstances. Overall, I thought Charlotte’s Web offered an acceptable and watchable visual experience.

I thought that the film’s monaural soundtrack suffered from a few flaws as well, though it generally seemed to be decent for a movie of this era. Although dialogue consistently appeared intelligible and it showed fair warmth at times, much of the speech showed excessively harsh and edgy tendencies. Far too many lines were moderately distorted, and this roughness became distracting. Again, this didn’t substantially affect intelligibility, but it made the listening experience a bit less pleasant.

Otherwise CW provided a bland but listenable affair. Dynamic range appeared pretty limited throughout the track, which mainly affected the film’s score and songs. These sounded clear and lacked noticeable distortion or flaws, but they didn’t seem very rich or lively. Effects were similarly flat. They replicated items with fair accuracy but nothing sounded terribly active or vivid. At times I detected a mild background hum during the film. Ultimately CW offered a soundtrack that seemed to be average for its era.

Charlotte’s Web lacks substantial extras. In addition to its theatrical trailer, we find the Meet the Animals game. Actually, this area is mainly a minor informative piece. A “web” includes pictures of 11 animals from the film; if you click on any one of them, you’ll get more information about their species. “Meet the Animals” also offers a “challenge” mode. With this “on”, you’ll hear a sound from one of the 11 animals, and you have to select which one it was. I suppose really little kids might enjoy this, but even for them I suspect it’ll be dull. There’s not much “challenge” to it, and the DVD’s response time is slow. I also found that some of the same noises repeated too frequently; any potential fun was negated the fifth time I heard the sheep bleat.

While I love good animated movies, Charlotte’s Web did little for me. The artwork found in the film was on a par with projects created for TV, and though some stars in the cast added a little zip, as a whole the flick seemed generic and bland. The DVD provided flawed but adequate picture and sound but it provided no significant extras. Little ones may get a kick out of Charlotte’s Web, but this isn’t a film that should offer much pleasure for an adult audience.

Equipment: Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.
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