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Friday, December 15, 2006

Charlotte's Web

When I was six my mother had a brain tumor. That is the only reason I can think of to explain why she so easily capitulated to my father’s demand that I be enrolled in a parochial school. For a kid from a “mixed married” (one side Catholic and the other Jewish) this made for a dramatic swing in power for the Christians wanting to get the upper hand in the battle for my immortal soul. Ugly words and bitter fights were common on this subject as I was the firstborn grandchild of the family and both sets of grandparents were always sticking their two cents in about everything. Anyway, here I was, an innocent six year old plunked down in the most terrifying of environments, forced to wear one of those standard blue plaid wool uniforms and spend my days amongst hundreds of other children who were more than happy to remind me on a daily basis that my mother and everyone on her side of the family was going straight to Hell, a lesson we learned in our Religion Class before anything else. Needless to say, it left me anxious and far more worried than any child should have to be at such a young age. To take my mind off of the traumas that surrounded me I was always glad when it was time in our school day to have the somewhat scary Sister Mary Immaculata read to us. Sister Immaculata was a beast of a woman, dressed impeccably in her starched white habit with only her bright pink face popping through the headpiece like a badger peering out from its hole. She was a corpulent creature, with a small mustache that betrayed her post-menopausal status, though to a kid like me it just looked like she bore a vague resemble to Hitler, which her behavior seemed to model. Even though Sister Immaculata was spooky, she always read clearly and with animation. The book she read us this first year was Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White.

That was more than forty years ago and I have never been able to read the book or see the cartoon version that came out in 1973. I practically hyperventilated when I first read that Paramount was making a big screen live version of the classic story because I knew I would have to see it, and that would mean reliving that horror of four decades past. Now don't get me wrong. I actually think that the book Charlotte's Web is a masterpiece in introducing kids to the concepts of death and the whole circle of life thing. Rumor has it that well-known local heartthrob, courageous fireman, and Essex Cinemas shift supervisor Austin Whittaker's mother Linda would hunt me down and squash me like a bug if I said otherwise, but I really do believe that. Like Linda, I adored the story. That is why the ending hit me so hard. I don’t think it is a spoiler since everyone in the world who can read knows the most heart-wrenching conclusion of the story by now, but when I first heard Sister Gestapo
utter those words telling us that Charlotte the spider had died I burst into tears and ran sobbing out of the classroom to the derisive catcalls and laughter of every single member of my class. It’s haunted me for all this time and since then I’ve never hurt or killed a spider or any bug (except mosquitoes ~ they deserve death because they are evil blood thieves). I don't know how Linda has held up with the news, but I've been in therapy for nine years and counting.

So finally the day arrived and I steadied myself to watch
Charlotte’s Web at the Essex Cinemas. As I remember, Charlotte’s Web was a HUGE hit among kids when I was a child and I have seen it since then in bookstores everywhere over the years. I assumed it would be a riotous madhouse of children piling into the theater to see the movie, and indeed the lobby of the Essex Cinemas was swarming with young people, but apparently they were all there to see Eragon on an adjoining screen. Alas, Charlotte’s Web seems to have lost its luster since it has no flying dragons or magical wizards.

Charlotte’s Web does have, however, is a lovely story of a girl named Fern (the ubiquitous Dakota Fanning; Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story). Fern lives in a plain farming community with her one dimensional parents and a completely pointless-to-the-plot brother. One night she awakens and runs to the barn in time to rescue the runt piglet of a newborn litter from falling victim to the axe by promising her reluctant father that she would care for the little guy and nurse him to good health. Being Dakota Fanning, she naturally wins her Dad (Kevin Anderson; The Doe Boy) over and before you know it the pig is sleeping in her bed and she is singing him lullabies at night. Kinky.

Mom (Essie Davis; The Matrix Revolutions) is none too thrilled about her daughter’s fixation on the pig, now named Wilbur, so she insists for no motivating reason except to move the story along that Wilbur must be herded over to Uncle Homer’s barn across the road. Whatever the point of
getting another branch of the family involved is beyond me. Believe me; I know about Uncles weighing in on certain subjects, and this subject ~ pork ~ can be a pretty touchy one in certain households. Fortunately for Fern, this family puts the “gentle” in “gentile” and everything is kosher (so to speak) as Uncle Homer (Gary Basaraba; Unfaithful) has no problem having Wilbur move in.

So little Wilbur (delightfully voiced by ten year old Dominic Scott Kay; Saving Angelo) is stuck experiencing what all kids do at a certain age: separation anxiety. He is left without his best and only friend, Fern, who has to spend her days at school and her nights doing homework. Poor Wilbur. The barn is full of a bunch of asses. Well, not real asses, but there is Ike, an anti-social horse voiced by Robert Redford (An Unfinished Life), a couple of doom and gloom old cows, Betsy and Bitsy (Reba McIntire; tv’s “Reba” and Kathy Bates; Bonneville, respectively), a self-absorbed pair of geese (Gussy and Golly, a bickering Oprah
Winfrey; tv goddess supreme, and Cedric the Entertainer; The Honeymooners), a flock of five sheep, four of which are a foolish chorus of idiots, following the every word of their leader, Samuel, voiced by John Cleese (Man About Town), and a ratty little creep of a rat named Templeton who is as selfish and annoying as you’d expect a rat to be. Somehow it comes as no surprise that his character is brought to life by Steve Buscemi (Delirious), who has made a career out of playing these kinds of characters in human form. None of these animals has much interest in Wilbur. Most think he is just a dumb kid, but the geese can’t keep their beaks shut when it comes to explaining that there is no future in getting to be friends with him as it is not worth the investment since he will be nothing more than Christmas dinner come Winter.

What could be more depressing than finding out that your best friend (Fern) and her family and planning to eat you and nobody cares? Well, fortunately for Wilbur there is one more resident of the barn and her name is Charlotte. And for those of us in Vermont, that’s “SHAR-let” not “Shar-LOT”. You know you are a true Vermonter when you see that name and immediately pronounce it in the latter way even if it is a girl’s name. Anyway, while the rest of the barn brigade has a rather low opinion of spiders, Wilbur, having never met one before, is happy to meet this new friend, eight legs and all. Best of all, Charlotte has been listening to Wilbur’s plight and pledges to him to find a way to save him from the slaughterhouse.

So hangs the plot of the rest of the movie, which weaves a delightful web of warmth as the animals slowly learn to bond as friends and work as a team to help their porcine pal. Even the human members of the story are given the opportunity to reconsider some of their preconceived notions about animals and come to realize that they are much more than just meat.

Julia Roberts (Ocean’s Twelve) at first may seem an odd choice to play Charlotte, but she has a very expressive voice that can offer emotions from kindness to exhaustion to modesty, all difficult traits to match up to the computer generated images of the spider used for her character. Overall, the animated effects necessary to make a world of animals talk in synchronization to the words coming out of their mouths is so well done that after the first few startling seconds of finding it happening at all it becomes unnoticeable and a natural part of this world. It took four separate special effects companies to pull this feat off, proving that the magic of Charlotte’s Web is as much behind the camera as it is in the on-screen performances of the human actors. Truth be told, even Dakota Fanning is barely more than a supporting player in the movie. The real stars are a hammy little guy with weight issues and an even tinier and furry co-star with a very distinctive voice. And, no, I don’t mean Rosie O’ Donnell and Danny DeVito. It’s all about the pig and the bug, Kids, and it’s still as sweet a story as it was when it was first published as a book 54 years ago. Forget the sorcerers. Take a break with the kids and enjoy a feel good time together watching Charlotte’s Web at the Essex Cinemas. Just don’t plan to eat any bacon any time soon afterwards.

1 comment:

Ruzanna said...

One of the latest movies for kids is "Charlotte's Web". It is a very cute story about talking animals, which fill kids with optimism and kindness.