Eddie Murphy’s enjoyable “Dr. Dolittle” movies, the grating “Cats & Dogs,” and even the delightful “Chicken Run” would be unthinkable without the example of a picture that opened unheralded six summers ago.
While other directors were aping Australian filmmaker George Miller’s post-apocalyptic “Mad Max” movies, Miller was pioneering new ground Down Under. He co-produced and co-wrote a gorgeous, affecting, hilarious and exhilarating fantasy with the unlikely name of “Babe.”
The title character was a talking pig; the movie’s given was that animals speak without people noticing. So adept was Miller’s blend of live and animatronic creatures and computer imagery that viewers were rapt in wonderment and responded unquestioningly, with soul-quenching laughter and what James Joyce would have termed “generous tears.”
Watching “Babe” again after a flood of imitations, you’ll find that the initial flush of pleasure hasn’t worn off, because the filmmakers worked out this tale of a piglet who wants to be a sheep dog with empathy, sophistication and bardic wizardry.
A movie like this depends partly on superb, stylized physical details, from the merry porcine wall hangings that back the opening credits to sets that are both realistic and otherworldly. It relies partly on astonishing technique, like the swift cuts to well-placed shots that cue us to what the animals are thinking. The success of “Babe,” though, is rooted in a thoroughly thought-out script.
Miller and his co-writer and director, Chris Noonan, preserve the charm of Dick King-Smith’s prize-winning children’s book (known overseas as “The Sheep-Pig” and here as “Babe the Gallant Pig”) while adding aspects as dark and emotional as those in “Watership Down” and “Animal Farm.” This movie’s humor, like Charlie Chaplin’s, rests on pathos and jeopardy.
Babe, the runt of the litter, believes that humans fattened up his family for Pig Paradise; no one tells him that his kind exists to be butchered for meat. Luckily, he’s plucked from the piggery as the prize in a country fair contest--and open-minded Farmer Hoggett is the winner. Nestled in a valley bathed in supernal light, Hoggett’s sheep farm looks like a peaceable kingdom, and a mother border collie named Fly soon nestles Babe to her bosom.
Hoggett’s farm still operates around a rigid order. Fly’s mate, Rex, the enforcer, ostracizes anyone who flouts the law, such as Ferdinand the duck, who horns in on the rooster’s job of crowing. Ferdinand understands that farmers keep ducks to eat them; that’s why he intends to be indispensable. Babe is different: He wants to herd sheep to please his border-collie stepmother and Hoggett, the Boss. In Miller’s words, the film tells the story of “an unprejudiced heart"--Babe’s.
Yet in this uncommon movie, many characters take on fullness and complexity by acting with flexibility and compassion. Babe, a polite and intelligent young pig, makes friends and influences dogs and sheep as well as people. He brings out the “unprejudiced heart” in others, from the kindly Hoggett to the fearsome Rex, and ends up initiating civil relations among species. This movie is persuasively hopeful--politically and interpersonally, it doesn’t write off anyone. Even after an episode of domestic violence, Rex proves himself a hero.
Part of the movie’s optimism comes from its belief in unpredictability, which also jazzes the comedy. Only born audiovisual jokesters would sense how irrationally funny it is for three field mice to serve as a squealing, singing Greek chorus (in a high point, they break into “Blue Moon”). Only born dramatic artists would get the performances that Noonan and his collaborators extract from their animals and actors. Babe is far more expressive than most young virtuous heroes. He has uninhibited silliness and vulnerability, and Christine Cavanaugh supplies a voice that pipes without pleading.
That jolly British actress Miriam Margolyes helps invest Fly with a strong, unsentimental maternal instinct. The cake-taking characterization is James Cromwell as the laconic, intuitive Farmer Hoggett. This long-faced, lanky actor registers so much feeling without moving a muscle that when he finally lets loose, he fills the screen with transcendent joy. Trying to rouse a depressed and ailing Babe with a song and then a dance, he brings to mind the epigraph from “The Great Gatsby": “Then wear the gold hat if that will move her; if you can bounce high, bounce for her too. . . .”
Beyond the intricate craft, the splendor of “Babe” rests on the filmmakers’ magical apprehension that these two beings could meet--unprejudiced heart to heart--through the medium of music and connect, with each other and the audience. When Cromwell bounces high, “Babe” hits the empyrean.
The true follow-up to this masterpiece is not any of its imitators, but the rushed-for-Christmas sequel directed by Miller himself: the much-maligned and little-seen “Babe: Pig in the City” (1998). As a fairy tale of an imperiled innocent in a chaotic and threatening metropolis, “Babe: Pig in the City,” I think, ranks with Carol Reed’s “Oliver!” and is the most genuinely Dickensian film to emerge since that one did in 1968. A breathtaking extension of the themes in “Babe,” “Pig in the City” is an even more surprising and inventive call for inter-species understanding and civility.
In “Babe: Pig in the City,” Miller provides a radical alternative to moral gasbaggery. No other brotherhood-of-animals scene has matched the deep-seated humor and solemnity of a host of disenfranchised city creatures lining up for food and expressing appreciation to Babe, their provider, with the simple, resonant words, “Thank you, pig.”