Babe (1995) and Babe: Pig in the City (1998)

Posted by on Dec 19, 2011 in Fun With Animals | 0 comments

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Disclaimer: Bigotry and eugenics explored via farm animals. And that’s just the harmless original; the sequel is far, far darker and more violent.

From the moment George Miller picked up the novel The Sheep Pig by farmer-turned-teacher-turned-author Dick King-Smith, he knew he had to commit it to celluloid. However, producer and co-writer Miller, who also wrote/directed the Mad Max trilogy and happens to be a vegetarian, waited a decade to do so in order for technology to advance and make real-life animals appear to speak. As it so happens, the film set the bar for anthropomorphic technology a few notches higher and won an Oscar for best visual effects.

The story begins in a sunless warehouse, where baby pigs watch as their hefty parents are shipped out to a place “so wonderful nobody ever came back.” Our title character, however, is traded to a carnival because he’s a worthless runt. At the carnival, Farmer Arthur Hoggett (James Cromwell, also a vegetarian) guesses the pig’s correct weight and wins the piglet. Since his farm has no use for a pig, the farmer’s wife (Magda Szubanski) immediately intends him for Christmas dinner.

With nowhere to turn at the farm, a sheepdog Babe2named Fly (Miriam Margolyes) adopts young Babe (Christine Cavanaugh of Rugrats and Dexter’s Laboratory fame). In a short while, Babe realizes everyone at the farm dislikes the pig race for being “stupid” and “useless,” and is only able to befriend a troublesome duck that wants to be a rooster (Danny Mann). The anorexic duck realized long ago that humans eat ducks and decided to show his worth. “Christmas means carnage!” he exclaims at one point. When Babe comes to the same conclusion, he decides to save his bacon (pun intended) by becoming a sheepherder. When the farmer suspects Babe’s intelligence, he enters him in the National Sheepdog Trials at the risk of embarrassing the sport and his reputation.

Many critics have compared Babe to George Orwell’s Animal Farm. The similarities include hints of bigotry, brutality, and eugenics, as the dogs rule the kingdom and set the rules, while others are ranked below them based on their worth and intelligence. But in my eyes, Babe is more closely akin to Charlotte’s Web. Now the dark sequel, Babe: Pig in the City, is another story entirely. This has much closer ties to Orwell.

Reviews and response to Babe 2 was polarized for one reason: how people thought kids would react. Those that thought it too dark for kids panned it, and those that gave kids’ gumptions more credit praised it. I’ll let parents be the judge of that, but what I will say is that I personally found it a strange, unexpected, and absolutely awesome dystopian fantasy “just a little to the left of the 20th century.”

Writer/director George Miller (Lorenzo’s Oil, The Road Warrior, Happy Feet) couldn’t have picked a more suitable title. It makes it all but clear that we’re in for another standard loveable-familiar-character-in-a-strange-land sequel (after all we’ve seen it with Muppets and Sesame Street so many times before), and the result is anything but. To be blunt, it’s a hellish nightmare involving a Delicatessen-esque hotel for rejected and abused animals (the best of which is Thelonius, one of the best elderly male characters in movies). And even worse is that they’re in for even more abuse and rejection, until Babe comes to save the day. If you think your child can handle loveable animal characters in several near-death moments, it’s more than worth it. If you believe the thought of Babe dying is too much for their fragile mind, then wait until they’re older and have seen Old Yeller.

While the talking animal sub-genre of films was seemingly exhausted long before 1995, Babe delightfully strutted along and turned everyone’s heads (including the Academy, which nominated the pig for seven Oscars). The pig itself is a combination of 48 piglets (because they grow so fast), and an animatronic double equipped with a fake tuft of hair and eyelashes. While computers provided a means for the appearance of speech, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop provided stunning doubles for many of the animals. The set, in fact, held 56 trainers for almost 1,000 animals; probably the most popular of which will be the singing mice (reminiscent of a chorus in Greek plays), who separate chapters and sound like Alvin and the Chipmunks.

Cromwell’s performance, which earned him an Oscar nomination, is surprisingly wonderful, though you may not notice it because he has very few lines. Of the lines he does say, “That’ll do pig; that’ll do,” instantly became a part of the pop culture lexicon and is spoofed, like everything else, in Shrek. Narrated by Roscoe Lee Brown, directed and co-written by Chris Noonan, and including other voice talents such as Hugo Weaving, Miriam Flynn, and Russi Taylor, this wonderful little pig will have you laughing, crying, and cheering. But above all, I suspect the little rascal will have you tickled pink (yeah, I went there).

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