is it with pigs? Earlier ages favored
the likes of wolves, foxes, donkeys and
lions for their fables, but our time
might be dubbed the Porcine Era.
it has to do with the rise of a
middle-class consumer society—the most
archetypical pig tale I can think of,
The Three Little Pigs, is a cautionary
fable about the security of superior
construction materials. It’s Aesop Meets
Alongside farceurs like Porky or Miss
Piggy, pigs have also come into their
own as vehicles of social commentary.
Orwell unforgettably used them to
symbolize communist totalitarians in
Animal Farm, and in 1995 there were two
pig movies, released a few months apart:
the trivial Gordy, and the superb Babe,
both of which used piglet protagonists
to explore the plight of domesticated
Probably no fictional pig, however, is
quite so beloved as Wilbur, the hero of
E. B. White’s 1952 children’s novel
Wilbur, the runt of a large litter on a
New England farm, is spared from the axe
through the intercession of Fern, the
farmer’s young daughter. He’s sent to
the farm across the road, Zuckerman’s,
where he eventually comes to realize, to
his horror, that the reprieve is
temporary—he’ll be bound for the
smokehouse for the holidays.
The other animals can offer him no
comfort, but then he befriends Charlotte
A. Cavitica. This noble and resourceful
barn spider (the scientific name is
Araneus Cavaticus) tries to help Wilbur
by weaving messages into her web, like
SOME PIG and TERRIFIC, which she hopes
will win him permanent clemency.
It’s the logic of kid fiction, but
probably also an accurate take on human
nature, that these portents are accepted
at face value; people are more awestruck
by Wilbur than by the fact that a spider
can write in English.
In his clean, graceful prose,
White—whose other great distinction in
American literature is as co-author,
with William Strunk, of The Elements of
Style—spun a parable about a cheerfully
stoic acceptance of the natural cycles
of life, leavened by the portrait of an
unlikely friendship, and by a whimsical
sense of the miraculous.
Movie versions were inevitable. A 1973
animated musical, with Henry Gibson
voicing Wilbur, Debbie Reynolds as
Charlotte and Paul Lynde as Templeton,
the Epicurean rat, was cute and pleasant
but corny, and somehow lost the laconic
wit of the book.
The current live-action version,
featuring sophisticated animatronics and
computer-generated special effects,
tries to be a bit more restrained, less
obvious in its crowd-pleasing, and on
the whole it’s a dignified attempt.
But—perhaps pulled down under the weight
of too much literal-mindedness—it still
falls far short of its source.
Nonetheless, it has its pleasures, and
its emotional payoffs. The voice of
Julia Roberts turns out to be a fine
choice for Charlotte—warm but not coy,
businesslike but not prim.
Except for Wilbur (voiced by a
10-year-old named Dominic Scott Kay),
the principal animals are an all-star
cast—Oprah Winfrey and Cedric the
Entertainer as the geese, Reba McIntire
and Kathy Bates as the cows, John Cleese
as the sheep, Robert Redford as the
horse, and Steve Buscemi as
Templeton—while Dakota Fanning, now 12,
handles the onscreen role of Fern with a
fierce directness that suggests she’s
continuing to grow as an actress.
Maybe the best feature of the film,
though, is the music, by Danny Elfman.
This stirring, Aaron-Copland-ish score
truly sounds like the music that ought
to accompany Charlotte’s Web. And that’s
pretty high praise.