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Sacrificial spider

Movies | Retelling of Charlotte's Web has much to say to children-and adults-about friendship and compassion

Issue: "2006 Daniels of the Year," Dec. 16, 2006

At first Wilbur is nothing but a runty spring pig. By the end of Charlotte's Web, we see him not just as Some Pig-he's terrific. He's humble. And through the compassion of a little girl named Fern and the devoted friendship of a spider named Charlotte, he can taste the first snow of winter rather than the flames of the smokehouse.

Modern filmmakers might be tempted to hijack E.B. White's beloved book, Charlotte's Web, and rework it into a screed against turning cute animals into bacon, or against modern farming, or whatever. But director Gary Winick refuses to take the newest theatrical release of Charlotte's Web in a politicized direction.

And by keeping it simple, Winick allows the subtle truths of White's tale to shine through. Throughout, Winick employs minimal CGI animation to supplement live action to give the film the same soft, picturesque feel of Garth Williams' original illustrations.

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White's classic spells out themes of friendship, compassion, and devotion. But on screen, Winick gives Charlotte's devotion even more depth. Eschewing an easy montage, Winick doesn't turn the camera away when Charlotte starts spelling with her web. At first, we see spinning words as a joyful task for Charlotte. But each word takes more effort. By the final word, Winick's animators show Charlotte laboring through the task as an aging artist for whom the simplest movements have become difficult.

Devotion to a friend is easy when it costs nothing. But spelling for Wilbur didn't just cost Charlotte precious silk. It may have shortened her lifespan. As Charlotte languishes after giving birth to lots of baby spiders, her sacrifice provokes Wilbur to action. Though he can't save Charlotte, Wilbur does manage to save the egg sac and bring it back to the farm.

Charlotte's Web is not only a good children's movie. The retelling of White's classic has much to say to despondent adults, too, about the power of compassion and friendship.

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