Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Popcorn Kernels: That'll Do, Pig

In which we review the movies in the Babe duology, which the blogger was forced to watch by the maniac he's dating, but found to be quite a treat.


Year: 1995
Director: Chris Noonan
Cast: James Cromwell, Magda Szubanski, Christine Cavanaugh
Run Time: 1 hour 31 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

A young pig is taken to a bucolic farm, where he longs to be a sheepdog instead of just a fancy dinner.

I don't usually respond to movies with animal protagonists, but I do respond to movies with effects brought to life by Jim Henson's Creature Shop, so I guess I was as neutral as Switzerland coming into Babe, which I'm certain I saw as a young child but remembered literally nothing about. And let me tell you what, I loved it. 

Babe is not only an adaptation of a children's novel, it is a storybook come to blissful, bucolic life. The farm set feels stagebound in a way that doesn't limit belief but rather creates a homey, insulated fairy tale atmosphere, and yet the world of the film spins an unlimited amount of potential from its glorious creature designs. This might just be the best work the Henson company has ever done, delicately switching between excellent trained animal actors and lifelike animatronics to create the impression of talking animals in a way that still holds up even two decades later.

The only effects liability is the sheep (which, incidentally, were the only creatures designed by a different company), who have a rather stiff range of expression and dead glassy eyes when it comes down to it, but other than that Babe is quite frankly a technical masterwork. There's something to be said about the fact that in the 23 years separating then and now, no Racing Stripes or Beverly Hills Chihuahua or Marmaduke has come even close to achieving the look and feel of these lifelike animals. To create something like this requires a great deal of craftsmanship, skill, and love, and that's something that the incredibly patient producer George Miller has proven himself to have in spades.

But a technically perfect children's film is nothing without heart, and Babe has enough of that for a whole pod of blue whales. Pure, blissful, painful heart bursts from every pore of this film, starting and ending with its two core performances. Christine Cavanaugh is irresistibly tender and innocent as Babe, a pig who doesn't know enough about the world not to believe he can do anything. And James Cromwell has a brilliant interiority to his outwardly hardened farmer character, letting the pig crack his gruff, masculine exterior in a variety of brilliantly small, subtle ways.

The screenplay is also tight as all get out, letting Babe wander through a variety of domestic, picaresque adventures that establish the world of the farm and the personalities of the animals within it, before slowly introducing the naïve pig to the harsh risks and realities of what it means to be a farm animal. Terror, death, and isolation form a constant presence over the film, but it doesn't shy away from darkness, allowing the sweetness to seem even more pure and scrumptious. It never gets pushed into saccharine, cheesy territory exactly because of that dash of reality taking the edge off.

In short, Babe is one of the best kids' films ever made. It's a beautiful combination of everything that makes it both a perfect motion picture (technical prowess and storytelling spirit) and a perfect storybook tale (heart with a dash of edgy reality). It's impossible not to be invested in Babe's journey, however big or small the plot developments are. If you have a child, this should be the only movie they watch until they're old enough to start seeing Scream movies.

Rating: 10/10

Babe: Pig in the City

Year: 1998
Director: George Miller
Cast: Magda Szubanski, Elizabeth Daily, Mickey Rooney 
Run Time: 1 hour 37 minutes
MPAA Rating: G

Babe leaves the farm in an attempt to raise money to save it, and ends up getting stuck in The City with a gaggle of assorted outcast animals.

When I told my mother I was going to watch Babe: Pig in the City, she said, "oh, the bad one?" Mind you, she'd never seen the film, but let's just say that that it doesn't enjoy the most sterling reputation in the world at large. And it's not hard to imagine why. It takes the sweet, gentle bliss of the original Babe and runs it through a meat grinder. While it's pretty interesting and unique on its own merits, those merits are not that of a Babe movie, or really that of a movie intended for minors to any degree.

It's not fair to say that this tonal shift is George Miller's fault, considering that he shepherded the original film into the world as producer, but this one is very George Miller. His Mad Max sensibilities burst through every pore of Pig in the City, and while those instincts are as sharp as ever, they're just not... cute. Take, for instance, one of the most disgusting characters to ever grace the silver screen: Mickey Rooney's mute clown Uncle Fugly, who is the scariest character the man has ever played, and this is a guy who starred in Silent Night, Deadly Night 5.

I don't normally post photos in mini-reviews, but look at this sh*t.

And that's not the only place where the man indulges in his more bizarre, manic instincts. I'm talking exuberant slapstick involving elaborate pulley systems, multiple disgusting side characters with pig noses, and a general daredevil attitude with the fragile psyches of the children that are supposedly in the  film's core audience. I think it says a lot that you could read this film as a prequel to either Hotel for Dogs or The Godfather.

That's not to say this is a bad thing. It's just not what people were asking for, and that's fair. But approaching this film as an adult, there's a lot to appreciate here. First of all, there's a wide variety of subtextual material to plumb. I won't go into great detail, but Pig in the City offers perspectives on gentrification, homelessness, and class disparity all sprinkled with ample Holocaust and slavery imagery. I've never seen a kids' movie with so much grim reality on its mind, even as it tells a simplistic fable within that framework.

Unfortunately, none of this carries the emotional heft of the original Babe, which faces the reality of being an animal on a farm in a simple, clear, and thus brutally precise way. It flings its ideas this way and that, and they only coalesce into something satisfyingly probing in the character of the orangutan Thelonius, a great ape whose only wish is to maintain his dignity in an increasingly cruel, unforgiving world.

But one thing that's unequivocally great is the design of the titular city itself and its inhabitants. Although Babe spends most of his time in a single hotel, every time he visits the broader environment of The City, it's a breathtaking amalgam of the greatest urban landscapes this wide world has to offer. It quite blatantly refuses to take place in any single city, lumping together landmarks and visual signifiers from a dozen different famous metropolises.

There we go with another picture, and if the fact that I can't resist including these doesn't prove Pig in the City has something stunning and visual to offer, I don't know what will.

This production design is perhaps the only thing that consistently maintains the dreamy storybook quality of the original film, and it's glorious, from the Venice canals that border Babe's hotel to the angular roads that drift across its downtown area to the Day-Glo muscle beach at its outskirts. And the costuming of the characters that inhabit this world is glorious, ranging from Medieval powdered faces with Cindy Lou Who hair to leather punks on roller blades to this angular work of art who runs the hotel.

She's like an Ellen Greene character made her way into the Capital from The Hunger Games, and oh boy there I go with the pictures again.

It's a boisterous good time visually speaking, and the animal actors are just as top notch this time around. Unfortunately, it's still just not as good as Babe, but really there aren't many things that are. Changing the actress playing Babe robs the character of some of its all-important heart, and the movie is a little too obsessed with effects setpieces and big, broad humor to focus on well-rounded characters. It's still fun, but it feels like a well-made trifle rather than a work of genius. But if that's the biggest complaint I can make about it, we're still in pretty good hands.

Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1470


  1. Ok, evidently I need to see Babe again, and Pig in the City, inasmuch as it's been about fifteen years for the former, and never for the latter.