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Bringing Home the Bacon

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Now, with ‘Babe: Pig in the City’ coming, expect a full retail blitz. You’re just a little pig in the big city. What can you do? What can anyone possibly do?

--Ferdinand the duck, from

“Babe: Pig in the City.”

Sell toys, that’s what. “Babe” is back, this time in full merchandising mode as “Babe: Pig in the City,” the sequel to the Oscar-nominated 1995 sleeper hit, lands in theaters Thanksgiving week.

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Universal Pictures got caught off guard three years ago when the first “Babe” turned out to be so popular; the studio’s merchandising division had only a few movie-related toys ready to sell to an army of Babe-loving kids and parents.

This time around the studio is pulling out all the stops with more than 100 licensees worldwide peddling everything Babe from plush toys and a singing Christmas Babe clip-on to tooth-fairy pillows, Radio Flyer wagons and remote-control toys, not to mention more than 50 published titles that include a chewable bath book and a cookbook--vegetarian, of course.

Babe toys are expected to hit stores nationwide the first week of October, about six weeks before the movie debuts Nov. 25. This weekend expect to be greeted by character stickups plastered on theater windows, huge Babe stand-ups and flying mobiles as “Pig in the City” promotion hits theaters.

Universal is banking on a “Babe” feeding frenzy after reaping the wrath of frustrated buyers hungering for Babe toys three years ago. The studio didn’t know what it had in George Miller’s little Australian fairy tale of a pig with a kind and steady heart. The low-budget import, a unique mix of animatronics, animal action and digital visual effects, wound up with seven Academy Award nominations, including best picture, and $250 million in worldwide box office.

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But when it came to show time, Universal was a pig in a poke with only a few plush toys to offer. They didn’t talk or really even resemble the industrious little Babe.

“I don’t think anybody expected such an unbelievable winning scope, from consumers to awards,” said Cynthia Cleveland, Universal’s president of merchandising and licensing.

“By the time [Universal] realized what it had, it was too late. . . . I was working for Imaginarium [the toy store chain] at the time and I can tell you we blew through our entire plush order the first week.”

Babe can expect some tough competition this holiday season with an onslaught of toys linked to Paramount’s “Rugrats,” the film adaptation of its hugely popular TV series on Nickelodeon, Disney/Pixar’s “A Bug’s Life” and even a few contenders from DreamWorks’ “Antz,” which opens Oct. 2.

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Although “Rugrats” toys are already a hot seller, Paramount plans to pump up the volume with more varieties, including a new character introduced in the movie, Baby Dil (younger brother of character Tommy Pickles), hitting store shelves in early October.

As for Disney/Pixar, its computer-animated Nov. 25 release, “A Bug’s Life,” will have a massive marketing campaign, including food tie-ins with McDonald’s and toys from Mattel. DreamWorks’ “Antz” has a limited line of plush and sculpted characters from Playmates, said Brad Globe, head of the studio’s consumer products division. There would have been more but DreamWorks bumped up the original spring/summer ’99 release date.

“When we moved up the release date, there just wasn’t enough time to do a major licensing program, to get the toys made,” said Globe. The studio does not plan any toy tie-ins with “Prince of Egypt,” its more adult-oriented animated musical about Moses, which arrives Dec. 18.

In “Pig in the City,” Babe’s big adventure picks up where it left off on Farmer Hoggett’s idyllic farm. In short order, the little hero of the National Sheep Trials finds himself headed to the city after he causes a mishap, leaving Hoggett injured, bedridden and unable to work the farm. With the bank threatening foreclosure, Babe knows it falls to him to save the day.

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“It’s been a few years since ‘Babe’ came out, and Universal can bank on some built-in awareness from the first movie. But only to a degree,” said Gordon Armstrong, a marketing consultant and head of the Entertainment Marketing Group. “There’s a whole new [group] of moviegoers out there.”

Here’s what’s in store for consumers: Baby Babe slippers will sell for $14.95, while adults can scuff around in a big-foot version at $18.95. A bedding ensemble, the most expensive Babe line, can cost up to $150. In the plush toy rack, the Gund-brand Babe sells for $19.95, while smaller stuffed animals, including Ferdinand the duck and Maa the sheep, go for $7.95.

But the toy Universal is most buzzed about is the Interactive Babe and Friends. Follow a few programming steps, set Interactive Babe’s internal clock and he’ll be asking his new owner plenty: Should he address his new master as “Maa or Boss?” Is there a cat or dog in the house?

“Once he’s finished the questions, the answers and times of day are locked in his memory,” said Gary Trumbo, executive vice president of Beverly Hills-based Equity Toys, which helped develop Interactive Babe.

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So at noon Babe will ask “What’s for lunch?” And don’t try to play with him past 10 p.m. “He’ll say he’s tired, ‘Let’s play tomorrow,’ ” Trumbo explained. The retail price will range from $39.99 to $54.99, depending on where it is purchased.

Not only do Babe and Friends have their own float in Macy’s upcoming Thanksgiving Parade, but FAO Schwarz is filling its flagship Manhattan store’s nine windows lining 58th Street with everything Babe. Nordstrom’s 96 stores will have specialty Babe boutiques.

“What’s so great about Babe is that he’s the one who squashed all age barriers,” said David Niggli, FAO Schwarz’s executive vice president of marketing. “Adults like him just as much as kids.”


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