Kids’ Corner: ”Charlotte’s Web” on DVD
(G, 96 mins.; 2006)
There are not many classic children’s books that can transfer onto the screen successfully and seamlessly, but this version is the exception. It handles the large issues in life — those of loneliness, acceptance, friendship, death, and the appreciation of life — with such aplomb that it’s equally touching for young and older viewers alike.
Indeed, when that little runt Wilbur appears, it’s just the start of a whole series of wanting-to-belong. First there’s no room for him to nurse, and Fern (played by Dakota Fanning) bottle-feeds him until he’s of the age where he’s in danger of being carted off to the smokehouse. When he’s moved to Fern’s uncle’s barn, a place ”full of living things but not full of life,” poor Wilbur has to try to fit in again — this time among the sheep, geese, cows, horse, and spider who all share the barn, but are not necessarily a family. But still Wilbur’s not safe from the chopping block, and so dear Charlotte (voiced by Julia Roberts), the spider who bestows not only her friendship but her awesome vocabulary on Wilbur, weaves her magical web, showing everyone what a prize Wilbur really is. (Remember the magic words? Some pig, terrific, radiant, and humble.)
The extras on this disc are something that kids will actually want to watch, since they delve into what it was really like to work with the live animals on the set. So how’d they get that goose to move and synchronize its beak perfectly to Oprah Winfrey’s voiceover? No less than a team of six puppeteers pulling various strings. They’ll not only see sheep getting brushed and blow-dried and cows getting a little foundation (hey, it’s the movie-business, after all), but they’ll learn nifty facts like why spiders are handy to have in the house (they eat more than 2,000 insects a year) and how strong their protein-rich web is (stronger than steel).
In return for Charlotte’s devotion, Wilbur makes sure her egg sack, with its 514 baby spiders, is safe. What lovelier message to impart to children than the one of helping those who are vulnerable. Charlotte’s Web does that, and much more. A —Eileen Clarke
Recommended ages: 3 and up
THE PEBBLE AND THE PENGUIN
(G, 74 mins.;1995 )
It’s hard to root against the traditional storytelling of animator Don Bluth (An American Tail, Anastasia), and though it seems the makers of Happy Feet owe him a big thank-you note, the birds in this forgotten 1995 romantic adventure prove flightless. Inspired by actual courting rituals of the now-superfamous Adelie penguin, the formulaic and sloppy Pebble deserves some credit for beating Feet to the Antarctic (humans and killer whales were bad news then, too!). Yet with a warbling Martin Short voicing our hero, Jim Belushi instead of Robin Williams, and a less-than-Prince-ly Barry Manilow on the soundtrack, even the most wide-eyed youngster will inevitably cry fowl. After the recent soaring of March of the Penguins and Feet, Pebble offers little more than regurgitated krill. EXTRAS: A tacked-on second disc offers two making-of docs (Tim Curry, once again playing the villian, seems embarrassed to be onboard; while Short looks very tired), and the requisite games. C- —Derek Manson
Recommended ages: 4 and up
The Melting of Maggie Bean
By Tricia Rayburn
When she finally sums up the courage to weigh herself, Maggie is horrified to discover she weighs 186 pounds. But if that weren’t traumatic enough, she then sees herself, really sees herself, in the bathroom mirror: ”Her flushed cheeks were like mini water balloons, ready to burst. Her dark eyes were squinty… And at last check, she’d had only one chin; now another half crept towards her neck. If this was what people saw when they looked at her, then they had no idea who she was. She was an excellent student. A good daughter and sister. A loyal friend.” Maggie, who’s got a lot going on — a dad out of work, a mom on the razor’s edge — finds solace in a bag of Snickers bars. But when she decides to try out for the school’s elite aquatic team, the Water Wings, she also decides to lose weight — and not in a sensible, healthy way, either: She begins to starve herself. Though the pounds disappear, her problems don’t. This isn’t a novel about anorexia (Maggie’s eating issues never progress that far), but one about food, body image, and adolescent cruelty. Maggie is a resourceful, likeable kid; this tale, realistically if simply drawn, illustrates an all-too-common aspect of teen life. B —Tina Jordan
Recommended ages: 9 to 13