Friday, 15 December 2006

Charlotte's Web (2006)

Charlotte's Web for the Babe generation?

Charlotte’s Web was a favourite of my childhood. Whenever we stayed over at my cousins’ homes for the school holidays, it would end up being watched at least once. That means we watched the VHS tape at least 4 time a year during primary school. The 1973 cartoon was that good – it had a touching story (save the pig from ending up as Christmas ham!), taught the values of sacrifice and friendship, as well as a very philosophical view about the interconnectedness of all life, and the inevitability of the cycle of life and death – all in a wry, dry, and non-preachy manner, while throwing in nice big words ("salutations") in musical numbers that would eventually make us want to speak better. Or something like that. And we’d cry ourselves silly each time we watched the cartoon, even though we knew that Charlotte would die in the end. It was that good.

And inevitable that it would be remade. Gary Winick’s smart idea is to remake the Hanna-Barbera cartoon into a live action movie, Babe-style. It seems the only major thing that has been updated for Charlotte’s Web is the technology used to create this movie, and not its plot. The story is more of a transcription from the original animation rather than an adaptation, considering how entire stretches of dialogue and plot points are ported over in their entirety. Storywise, this means the Charlotte’s Web of 2006 cannot go very far wrong, and indeed I found my eyes tearing slightly by the end of the movie (yes, Charlotte dies in this one as well). This is sufficiently good for you to bring your children to the cinema, and for you to relieve that childhood memory.

The fact that the movie milked only a fraction of my emotions and tears might point towards my adulthood, or what EB White called in his book "the loss of childhood". Or perhaps it had to do with certain minor annoyances that served to diminish the project, such as the movie’s adherence to the norms of modern children’s movies despite its very old-fashioned and rustic leanings. This is a movie that celebrates the solemn passing of life and the seasons, growing up and passing away, amidst 2 fart jokes, one burp joke, one stink bomb joke, and an unnecessary shot of a somersaulting pig.

It also might have to do with the awkward juxtaposition of excellent and naturalistic voice acting of the cast with the showy (you tend to notice the very special effects that make the animals look as though their lips are moving or smiling as they talk) but unexciting (animal body language being very limited, the director ends up resorting to animals falling sideways and fainting very early on) visuals. The same problem can be observed on a larger scale: the use of live animals allows the director to remove a huge portion of cheap sentimentality and cuteness (Charlotte is a real and life-like spider here, not a cartoon spider with a feminine face; and the scene of the rat gorging itself is shown in disgustingly realistic detail), yet the director cannot resist having the animals in the barnyard revel in their adorability and smart-alecky lines, and when Charlotte dies, she dies with a smile – with a very human smiley face, in fact. Now why would they want to do that, if the director and the CGI team have portrayed her as a very realistic looking spider with multiple eyes and fangs throughout the movie? This points to an inconsistent vision at best, or an insecurity with their own artistic vision.

The rest of the movie has similar pros and cons: Winick does away with almost all the songs from the original cartoon and tells the story at times from the point of view of the humans. It is at these times that you realise that the story of Charlotte’s Web is more suited to animation: the human characters easily dominate our interest when they appear on screen, the animal characters lose their enchanting touch as live-action figures, and the old-fashioned and fable-like (both in technique, language, and values) narrative voiceover feels out of place in a live-action setting.

What saves this movie from being an unjustified remake is the beautiful sequence where Charlotte spins her web at night in the doorway, against the moonlight. The wonders of CGI let us see her up close, secreting her silk threads as she gracefully falls down and climbs up her web, weaving her first set of magical letters that would save Wilbur by the end of the movie. You wish the director and his art team could have made every moment of the film like this, and struck a convincing blow for CGI talking animal films. Alas, the traditional animated closing credits sequences outshines almost the rest of the live-action CGI wizardry, can captures the wistful, sad, wise and life-affirming tone of the story far easily.

Despite its flaws, Charlotte’s Web is a worthy diversion for kids bombarded with too many cartoons intent on making pop cultural references, and an excellent introduction to the beauty of language and the philosophy of living a good and meaningful life for your children. Unless you still happen to keep a DVD or VHS tape of the 1973 version.

First published at incinemas on 21 December 2006

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