How Debbie Reynolds Perfectly Voiced a Spider in Heartbreaking ‘Charlotte’s Web’

Debbie Reynolds Charlotte
REX/Shutterstock

While Debbie Reynolds was best known as a Hollywood singing and dancing icon — from “Singin’ in the Rain” to “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” — she also made a strong impression in children’s programming. She voiced a grandmother in Nickelodeon’s “Rugrats,” and took on similar roles in Disney Channel’s “Kim Possible” and “Halloweentown.” But to me, nothing compares to her aching and wistful performance as the star of Hanna-Barbera’s 1973 animated “Charlotte’s Web.”

The movie, the first adaptation of E.B. White’s beloved children’s novel, was met with lukewarm ticket sales, but received a renaissance in the ’90s thanks to its hugely popular VHS edition.

I must have been in the first grade when I got to know Reynolds — before I’d ever heard about her. As interpreted by Reynolds, Charlotte is everything the book character is and more: wise, maternal, sassy, didactic and endlessly protective of Wilbur the pig. Plus, she’s a hell of a singer. It’s such a masterful portrait, every time I’ve read the story since then, I always hear Reynolds’ soothing cadence.

Joe Barbera later revealed that Reynolds was such a fan of the book, she offered to play the part for free. And her work paved the way for Julia Roberts as Charlotte in a live-action remake, released in 2006.

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Yet, for all its charms, the 1973 “Charlotte’s Web” was a painful production that almost didn’t make it. White, who resisted selling his book to Disney, protested about all the musical numbers. In 2003, illustrator Gene Deitch (“Popeye”) published his collection of letters from the distressed author.

“In writing of a spider, I did not make the spider adapt her ways to my scheme,” White wrote. “I spent a year studying spiders before I ever started writing the book. In this, I think I found the key to the story. I hope you will, in your own medium, be true to Charlotte and to nature in general.” (White also added, quite comically: “My feeling about animals is just the opposite of Disney’s.”)

With the news of Reynolds’ death at 84 on Wednesday, I went back and revisited the movie. Here’s my favorite song: Reynolds singing “Chin Up” — a rah-rah anthem that you could imagine her belting out in one of her live musicals.

And here’s the scene that always made me bawl as a kid. On her deathbed, Charlotte explains to Wilbur the importance of friendship. “After all, what’s a life anyway?” she says. “We’re born, we live a little while and we die.” Then she sings herself to sleep with a melancholy lullaby: “How very special are we/for just a moment to be/part of life’s eternal rhyme.”

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  1. Ali says:

    Why isn’t she listed in the credits?

  2. São apenas 04 degraus nesta Quimbanda: iniciado (Exú Acordado), pronto (Exú
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  3. São apenas 04 degraus nesta Quimbanda: iniciado (Exú
    Acordado), pronto (Exú Assentado), Chefe (Exús Assentados e também com Axé
    irradiado aos Demônios) e Rabino (Exús Assentados, Irradiados por Diabos
    e também com Axé para Doutrinado à Eguns). http://www.Symbaloo.com/toolbar.do?url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.templodequimbanda.com.br%2Fconsulta-com-o-templo-de-quimbanda%2F&title=tml/wwhelp%20-%20Adobe

  4. Alex Meyer says:

    I watched this movie all the time as a kid.

  5. Kathleen Rosales says:

    My fondest memories, as young girl my favorite movie, Susan Slept Here.

  6. JOE S HILL says:

    The death of Debbie Reynolds truly saddens this departing year that we’ve lost so many icons of this business,as well as being politically divided! but “CHARLOTTE’S WEB”,the animated movie that Hanna-Barbera Productions and Paramount Pictures released in mid 1973,was also an impressive family feature faithfully based on EB White’s great children’s novel,and Reynolds,along with Paul Lynde,Henry Gibson and Agnes Moorehead gave great voice performances,while 70s child and teen actress Pamelyn Ferdin,the voice of “Lucy” in CBS’s “CHARLIE BROWN” TV specials,gave a great voice support as “Fern” in greatly written musical numbers from Richard B and Robert M Sherman (“MARY POPPINS”) so for Debbie Reynolds’ 1st animated voice role,this was an outstanding and superior achievement!

    • Nick says:

      Debbie Reynolds was great–RIP. Her voice was certainly THE highlight in an otherwise overlong, dreadfully cheaply produced cartoon version of Charlotte’s Web. Way too many songs–all Sherman Brothers self retreads, poor direction and pacing, and weak animation bog this VHS nap time favorite to a dreadful, sleepy halt. White should have sold it to Disney…they would have given Debbie Reynolds a true platform to shine.

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