Review of Charlotte’s Web (1973)
Seen in 2015.
A weak and stunted piglet on a US family farm is saved from a quick slaughter by the family’s daughter, and horrified to learn that the reprieve is temporary. Sold to a relative on a nearby farm, the pig learns to talk and manipulates the animals around him to save his life.
Some nice voice work, particularly by Paul Lynde (Templeton). I would like to see the Swedish dub, with the magnetic jazz singer Monica Zetterlund as Charlotte. The visual presentation is merely workmanlike and the musical sequences mostly a pain, with the exception of the lovely and baroque title theme: Harpsichord and extradiegetic vocals to almost abstract imagery.
My major point of interest in this film is its extreme clash of ideas and levels of fiction, similar to run-of-the-mill funny-animal cartoons like “Country Boy” (1935) or the live-action meltdown of The Love Bug (1968), but uncommonly rich. The following curious points are just about the use of talking animals:
- Wilbur does not instinctively talk at the age of several weeks, with constant human company, yet the newly hatched spiderlings do it immediately, which indicates that language is not learned from people.
- Fern seems to understand what the animals are saying, or at least knows their names and accurately recounts their intentions to her family. In a tempting frame of reference, the entire “talking animal” section of the story occurs solely in her imagination. There is nothing else to indicate this, and it would leave no reason for Wilbur to win a prize and survive. It would be a stretch to suppose that Fern somehow stages Charlotte’s writing by reknitting the web.
- Charlotte alone, apparently through sheer intelligence, knows how to write, yet many of the animals know how to spell, to varying degrees. The writing is discussed by all the animals and is perfectly legible to humans, again implying that the spoken language of the animals is English.
- Charlotte’s prey animals do not speak.
- The humans mindlessly ape Charlotte’s words and falsely conclude they are divine in origin.
- In a further twist on the use of language, Fern the farmer’s family name is “Arable”, indicating an open allegory, yet other names don’t have this quality.
These points are all in addition to, and highlight, the bizarre conceit of talking animals in other non-fable fiction. Through an individual’s writing, not through the more likely choice of letters or collective action à la Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945), the animals are almost able to communicate to the humans a human-like fear of death and aversion to violence. This fear is not just Wilbur’s. The sheep look down on pigs because they are kept just for meat, showing how they all dislike slaughter on some level, and want to avoid it.
The song “We’ve Got Lots in Common”, which is very nearly extended to people as Fern nods along, expresses both this shared pseudo-humanity and a conflicting facet of the narrative: The animals are generally unrealistically blissful and content with their lives on a farm. At the same time, Charlotte describes her love of “blood” (actually insect flesh liquefied by her corrosive saliva, but the film does not go into this detail), which is portrayed as natural and largely unobjectionable, except to the overly sensitive Wilbur, for whose sake she—merely!—hides the activity.
Those three layers all coexist: A vegetarian/vegan story of non-violent protest against human violence to animals, a more traditional naïve story of animal husbandry as a win-win situation, and finally a good story about nature as undirected, amoral and indeed violent, but nonetheless glorious. It is an interesting choice to have Charlotte, as the most natural and least humanoid of the species, represent both the highest moral standard (in her sacrifice), the highest civilized intelligence (in her writing, which controls even people) and the most predatory natural behaviour, as well as the least sustainable reproductive pattern in the absence of predation. All of these traits, of course, implicitly align her with humankind.
I perceive the filmmakers as siding with the farmers and their market-driven ethic of tasty meat and “brutal honesty”. The ideas of commonality and non-violent relationships with the natural world are used to humour children: Fern as well as the intended audience. Meanwhile, the adults—farmers and filmmakers alike—share something closer to Charlotte’s amoral view, rather tastelessly expressed with the metaphor of human romance in the song “Mother Earth and Father Time”. The message is to care for your friends, not for nature. Still, there is a seed here of potential environmentalism, despite the intellectual meltdown.
References here: BoJack Horseman (2014).