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Work on ‘Babe’ Stretches Well Into the 11th Hour

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The word “damn” has been replaced with “darn,” and James Cromwell, who plays the taciturn farmer, is hardly in the picture at all. Still, the animals are back as cute and chatty as ever--even if some are placed in peril and a dog is shown upside-down with his head in the water.

On Thursday, the film all Hollywood had been gossiping about, after Universal Studios abruptly canceled its U.S. premiere party, received some last-minute sound dubbing less than a week before its nationwide debut over the Thanksgiving holiday.

The film, of course, is “Babe: Pig in the City,” the big-budget porker of a comedy that Universal Studios views as a potential franchise should audiences embrace the sequel as warmly as they did the 1995 Australian-made original, “Babe.” Those who saw an almost-finished version of the movie this week describe some of it as Fellini-esque with a European sensibility.

Darker in tone than “Babe,” the sequel was directed by George Miller, who was caught up in a frantic race to the wire to get his film completed for a Nov. 25 release.

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Some of those who attended a Wednesday screening for exhibitors said that although the effects are great, the movie is rather unconventional.

“The film is interesting, very Fellini-esque,” said one exhibitor. “It had some elements of ‘Mad Max’ and ‘The Witches of Eastwick,’ ” both of which Miller directed.

Controversy erupted when Universal was forced at the last minute to cancel the film’s Nov. 15 premiere. Miller, who has final cut, blamed the delay on a “technical hitch” involving the movie’s sound. He said the sound was originally mixed in Australia, but when he returned to the United States, he discovered that it needed to be recalibrated because some scenes were too loud.

“We had to remix the entire film,” an exhausted Miller said Thursday. “It was so loud, it was a complete assault on the ears.”

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Racing against the clock, the studio assigned six of its top dubbers to work 20 hours a day to fix the problem, the director said.

“Universal said, ‘We’ll take the flak for canceling the premiere,’ ” Miller said. “If we showed it at the premiere, it would have hurt people’s ears.”

While that was going on, Miller said, the Motion Picture Assn. of America told the studio that it would give the film a child-friendly G rating if minor changes were made in the movie.

“The MPAA said, ‘Look, if you change two ‘damns’ to ‘darn,’ we’ll give you a G,” Miller recalled. “That’s what happened.”

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He said the scene in question involved some newborn chimps whose parents are looking down at them. The question is put, “Who’s like us?” The original reply was, “Damn few.”

“We changed it to ‘Who’s like us?’ ‘Darn few,’ ” Miller said. “Then the mother looks at her babies and repeats it, ‘Yeah, darn few.’ ”

Miller said that, in all, he pulled “three or four shots” from the film, including one of a goldfish flopping around and breathing heavily after its bowl is broken.

Asked if the scene was too intense for small children, the director replied: “It wasn’t that kids were getting frightened, I just pulled out the shot.” Miller said he initially thought the goldfish might look too fake, but others disagreed. Still, when the sound was remixed, Miller said he decided it provided a good opportunity to remove the goldfish.

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Studio distribution president Nikki Rocco acknowledged that the movie is a bit darker than the original.

“The picture is about the pig that goes to the big, dark city,” Rocco said. “It’s not the fuzzy farm.”

In one scene, she said, the pig is chased by a dog. “But Babe ends up saving the [dog], and he becomes the hero,” Rocco said.

With trailers playing in theaters and ads splattered in newspapers and magazines across the land, the studio had faced the possibility of widespread embarrassment--and a calamity for exhibitors--had the movie been yanked from its Thanksgiving slot.

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But by midweek, after receiving a G rating and then screening a 95-minute, color-uncorrected version for exhibitors nationwide, Universal executives were putting a positive spin on recent developments.

Studio chairman Casey Silver stressed that no scenes were taken out, only “tweaks of scenes.”

“The real issue is that it’s a terribly complicated picture on an aggressive post-production schedule,” Silver said.

Silver said Miller had attended an earlier test screening at which audience reaction was gauged and found to be “very solid.” “But there were issues George wanted to address,” Silver explained. “He made last-minute adjustments, just like every studio makes.”

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Silver said he made the decision to go with Miller and cancel the premiere--which had been set a year before. “We backed the filmmaker,” he said. “It’s the right thing for the audience, the stockholders and the filmmaker.”

But the premiere’s sudden cancellation triggered rumors of a possible catastrophe-in-the-making that swept through Hollywood, raising questions about a studio in need of hits. Earlier this week, the studio’s parent firm, the Seagram Co., pushed out the studio’s chief executive, Frank Biondi Jr., after Universal’s big-budget release “Meet Joe Black,” starring Brad Pitt, debuted in third place.

As a result, much more will now be riding on “Babe: Pig in the City.”

Rocco said that the studio surveyed exhibitors across the country after Wednesday’s screening and received positive responses, including one from a mother who came with her small children, who said they loved the movie.

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Some other exhibitors said they found the film entertaining but not as good as the original “Babe.”

An exhibitor from Kansas City said the film was “similar to the first, but not as marketable.” An exhibitor from Des Moines said there wasn’t the same impact as the original film, “but it’s cute and entertaining.” And an exhibitor from Charlotte, N.C., added: “Good special effects. Should attract kids 3 to 12.”


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