MOVIE REVIEW : This Little Piggy Has All the Makings of a Sleeper : Movie review: The charming, carefree ‘Babe’ is an unanticipated treat. The director of ‘Mad Max’ co-wrote the script.
In this age of hype, over-hype and still more hype, what is sweeter than a genuine sleeper, a captivating film that dares to arrive without advance notice? “Babe,” guilelessly trotting in on little pig’s feet, is just such an unanticipated treat.
Its success is unlikely on every level. Its porker-of-destiny story line about a young pig that wants to be a sheep dog does not inspire confidence, its elaborate mixture of live action, animatronics and computer graphics sounds unwieldy and still photos don’t do justice to its strengths.
But “Babe” turns out to be that rare movie that completely fulfills its admittedly modest aims. Coming at the end of a string of bloated summer movies, its gleeful Grinch-proof antics define irresistible, making you wish that words like charming and enchanting hadn’t been overused on a slew of less likable films.
The film’s special effects, which serve the story rather than call attention to themselves, are beautifully effective. Although considerable meticulous work has gone into the picture, including 18 months of preproduction, six months of shooting (with 48 fast-growing piglets used for the title character) and a year of post-production, the result is always carefree and light on its feet.
What all the effects have created is a curious sheep farm situated somewhere between enchantment and reality. Its nominal bosses are the taciturn Farmer Hoggett (James Cromwell) and his well-rounded wife (Magda Szubanski), but the creatures with the most engaging personalities are the farm animals, which, thanks to all that effects magic, move their lips and speak English when the Hoggetts are conveniently not around.
Babe, the runt of a litter of Large White Yorkshire pigs, almost doesn’t get to the farm at all. But when Farmer Hoggett eyes him at a county fair, narrator Roscoe Lee Browne records “a faint sense of common destiny” passing between them, and soon Babe is on the yard.
Young as he is, Babe (voiced by Christine Cavanaugh) is ill at ease at first, but Fly, a border collie, takes him on as a surrogate son. Fly’s mate Rex runs the farmyard, laying down the law to the animals and reminding them never to depart from “the way things are.”
Next on the agenda is meeting the neighborhood characters, which include such animal crackers as the venerable Maa (Miriam Flynn), the crankiest sheep in captivity, and Ferdinand (Danny Mann), a conniving, fast-talking goose who believes his eccentric behavior will save him from the Christmas table, a fate that, he tragically moans, “eats away at the soul.”
Given these pals, it’s not surprising that Babe gets it into his head that he wants to herd sheep. Fly tries to give him standard dog advice about showing them who’s boss, but Babe, a free spirit who refuses to accept others’ definitions of whom he should be, has his own ideas. And watching this Little Pig That Could persevere on his own path is more satisfying than the cynical might imagine.
Babe’s story is told in a way that consciously echoes silent films, with iris closes and title cards marking off the individual segments. It also has off-the-wall elements, like a trio of tiny field mice who can be heard singing both “Blue Moon” and the toreador aria from Bizet’s “Carmen.” And, with phrases like “This is a tale about an unprejudiced heart,” the film retains the literary quality of its source material.
That would be “The Sheep-Pig,” written by Dick King-Smith, the prolific author of children’s books. Australian producer-director George Miller (“Mad Max,” “Lorenzo’s Oil”) came across the book and determined to turn it into a film. He co-wrote the script with fellow Australian Chris Noonan, whose reputation is in documentaries and television, and, staying on as co-producer, hired Noonan, in his major feature debut, to direct.
With its smooth melding of real and artificial creatures and its interesting voice choices (Hugo Weaving of “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” does Rex and “The Age of Innocence’s” Miriam Margolyes is Fly), “Babe” makes its broadly defined but exactly performed characters completely convincing. If only people would be more like these animals, the world, though hardly saner, would certainly be a lot more fun.
* MPAA rating: G. Times guidelines: scenes of violence between animals and talk about animal mortality.
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Christine Cavanaugh: Babe
Miriam Margolyes: Fly
Danny Mann: Ferdinand
Hugo Weaving: Rex
Miriam Flynn: Maa
Roscoe Lee Browne: Narrator
James Cromwell: Farmer Hoggett
Magda Szubanski: Esme Hoggett
A Kennedy Miller production, released by Universal Pictures. Director Chris Noonan. Producers George Miller, Doug Mitchell, Bill Miller. Screenplay George Miller & Chris Noonan, based on the book by Dick King-Smith. Cinematographer Andrew Lesnie. Editor Marcus D’Arcy & Jay Friedkin. Costumes Roger Ford. Music Nigel Westlake. Production design Roger Ford. Art director Colin Gibson. Set decorator Kerrie Brown. Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.