‘Babe’ Hits the Mean Streets
Anyone who earns more than $100 million worldwide is going to lose some of their innocence. Even if it’s a pig. Especially if it’s a pig.
Undeniably clever and inventive, “Babe: Pig in the City” has nevertheless sacrificed part of the freshness and buoyancy that made the original “Babe” so luminous. This sequel is more elaborate, more calculated and more self-consciously dark than its deservedly beloved predecessor.
Part of this comes from the inevitable Hollywood reflex to throw money at the follow-up to a success. This “Babe” reportedly cost nearly three times the original and is said to have four times the animatronic and computer-generated special effects of its predecessor.
Unable to resist the dictum that bigger means better, “Pig in the City,” impressive technological wonders notwithstanding, has a tendency to flounder in its overproduced elements.
The first “Babe’s” success also influenced Australian director George Miller, who produced and co-wrote (with director Chris Noonan) the original, to step in and direct as well this time around. This may not have been such a good idea.
Miller is a much-admired director, with films like the “Mad Max” trilogy, “The Witches of Eastwick” and “Lorenzo’s Oil” to his credit. But as those titles show, he naturally gravitates toward darker material and that tendency inevitably colors “Pig in the City.”
Unsettling, though not quite nightmarish, this new “Babe” includes among its incidents a chase by a terrifying bull terrier, a human character carried out in a very realistic coma, animals that barely escape being shot to death, drowning, suffocating and hanging themselves, as well as assorted scenes of animal humiliation and unhappiness. This may not be what parents have in mind for their smallest children.
It’s true that bad things happened in the original “Babe,” but the picture’s overall tone was nowhere near as somber as the new version’s is, despite numerous moments of humor. Though it doesn’t go that far, “Pig in the City” does put one in mind of the penchant for the grotesque that marked Tim Burton’s ill-fated “Batman Returns.”
“Pig in the City” nominally picks up where the original “Babe” left off, with the beloved porker basking in the adulation of “Welcome Home Pig” parades after proving himself to be a sheepherder without peer. Almost immediately something bad happens: Farmer Hoggett (James Cromwell) nearly gets crushed to death by an errant piece of farm machinery (and in fact is barely a presence in the rest of the film).
With sullen bankers threatening to foreclose on the farm, wife Esme (Magda Szubanski) has no choice but to accept an offer for a personal appearance by Babe in a distant locale.
Tagging along are some of the funniest elements from the first film, animals who have lost none of their charm in the transition. Ferdinand the self-important duck still says what the others will not (“You’ll be in the company of a serial killer,” he quacks to Babe about his trip with Esme) and the trio of singing mice amusingly enlarge their repertory to include Edith Piaf’s “Non, Je ne Regrette Rien” and the Elvis Presley hit “Are You Lonesome Tonight.”
Changing planes in a mythical city, Esme and Babe run into more problems. An officious drug-sniffing dog maliciously fingers the pair, leading to an unhappy strip-search for Esme and causing Babe and his human to miss their connection and get stuck in the metropolis.
They end up in the Flealands Hotel run by an animal lover (Mary Stein) who is as tall and angular as Esme is short and round. Dogs live on one floor, cats on another, but the most troublesome animals are a family of hipster show-biz chimpanzees named Zootie, Bob and Easy who board with a melancholy orangutan named Thelonius and work for aging vaudevillian Fugly Floom (Mickey Rooney).
Things don’t work out well for Esme in the city; she even manages to get herself arrested. In the interim, Babe interacts with the hotel animals and runs into a whole gang of abandoned strays on the city streets.
“Pig in the City” definitely has its amusing moments, and these new animals provide their share. There’s a tiny kitten who wails, “I’m hungry,” (and makes an amusing reappearance at the tail end of the film’s very long credits) as well as a pink poodle who has the regrets of “A Streetcar Named Desire’s” Blanche DuBois.
Fortunately, despite a change in vocal talent from Christine Cavanaugh to E.G. Daily, Babe is still Babe. Though told it’s “a dog-eat-dog world and there’s not enough dogs to go around,” this pig on a mission continues to be upbeat and positive.
As for the rest of the production, its smarts notwithstanding, audience members will find it harder than it should be not to empathize with the animal who asks, “When is something good going to happen to me?” Not soon enough.
* MPAA rating: G. Times guidelines: a noticeably dark and somber tone throughout.
‘Babe: Pig in the City’
Magda Szubanski: Esme Hoggett
James Cromwell: Farmer Hoggett
Mary Stein: The Landlady
Mickey Rooney: Fugly Floom
E.G. Daily: voice of Babe
Universal Pictures presents a Kennedy Miller Film. Director George Miller. Producers George Miller, Doug Mitchell, Bill Miller. Executive producer Barbara Gibbs. Screenplay George Miller, Judy Morris, Mark Lamprell. Director of photography Andrew Lesnie. Production designer Roger Ford. Editors Jay Friedkin, Margaret Sixel. Costume designer Norma Moriceau. Music composed by Nigel Westlake. Visual effects and animation Rhythm & Hues. Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes.
In general release.