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Musical score highlights holiday redux of E.B. White classic

By: M.V. Moorhead

Dec. 16, 2006

What 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.

Maybe 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 Home Depot.

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 animals.

Probably no fictional pig, however, is quite so beloved as Wilbur, the hero of E. B. White’s 1952 children’s novel Charlotte’s Web.

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.


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