If a key component of entertainment excellence is rewatchability, then one of the surest ways to really plumb the worth of a children’s book, movie, or TV show is for your kid to become fascinated by it and insist on experiencing it again and again for weeks or months — in the process subjecting you to the same regimen. And then, several months later, to do it again.
With this kind of extended immersion comes a level of critical awareness usually attained only by veteran film class instructors and insomniacs. The small faults of modest entertainment that could initially be overlooked become over time more and more glaring, until the very word "Zoboo-Land" makes you want to string a Kratt Brother up by his thumbs (and if you don’t know what I’m talking about, be thankful). By the same token, the subtle virtues of great entertainment become increasingly resonant, until the mere thought of a throwaway expression on the face of the candlestick in Beauty and the Beast brings a silly grin to your own face.
When I first saw Babe in its theatrical run, I knew it was a great film. Yet time and repeated exposure has only enhanced my appreciation of and affection for this enchanting barnyard fable of the pig with the "unprejudiced heart." A blurb on the video box from critic Dann Gire of The Chicago Daily Herald proclaims it "The Citizen Kane of talking pig pictures." He is unquestionably right: More importantly, he would probably still have been right if studios had been cranking out talking-pig pictures at a rate of a dozen a year for the last twenty years. (Certainly the subsequent release of the catastrophically misconceived Babe: Pig in the City doesn’t affect the original’s preeminent status.)
Babe even has what looks like an homage to Citizen Kane — specifically, to the famous pull-back reveal in Kane’s opening sequence. An early scene in Babe opens with a shot of a beautifully decorated home interior, into which a giant hand suddenly intrudes, and the camera pulls back, revealing Arthur Hoggett (James Cromwell) leaning intently over a meticulously crafted dollhouse, doing detail work. This shot echoes the pull-back in Citizen Kane with a snow-covered house that retreats from the camera to be revealed as a model in a snow-globe in the hand of another old man, Kane himself. And, like Kane’s snow-globe, Hoggett’s dollhouse suffers an ignominious fate, though not as precipitously.
Homages to Citizen Kane? Maybe you’re thinking I’ve watched this film one too many times. But the fact is that Babe is much more than a fun kid flick with talking animals. It’s wonderful moviemaking that delights on every level: a triumph of art direction, acting and characterization, special effects, scoring, pacing and rhythm, everything. One of the best films of the nineties, one of the best family films of all time, Babe is a masterpiece that’s satisfyingly true to the charming quality of the original novel by Dick King-Smith. (Helping capture the storybook feeling are chapter-like title cards read by a trio of raucous mice, and the gentle though slightly edgy narration of Roscoe Lee Browne, who’s been the voice of comic-book heavy The Kingpin in Spider-Man cartoons.)
Here are just a few observations:
Production design. The sheer look of Hoggett Farm is a wonder, from the crazy architecture of the farmhouse with its towers and flying buttresses, to the barn with its heap of a thatched roof, low stone walls, and soaring vaulted interior. Producer George Miller says he asked production designer Roger Ford to design a farm that would be a character in the film; and indeed, the farmhouse seems to have a face, with windows for eyes.
Tucked away in its verdant valley, Hoggett Farm is wholly persuasive and convincing, in spite of its architecture being like no real farmhouse anywhere from England to New Zealand. In point of fact the farm was built in Australia; but it feels as if it could be at home in almost any English-speaking pastoral countryside. Or if not, then it’s the fault of the countryside.
The human touch. Unlike subsequent talking-animal pictures (Eddie Murphy’s Dr. Dolittle pictures; Cats and Dogs), Babe is a movie in which the human leads matter as much as the animals, or more so. Arthur Hoggett (James Cromwell) and his wife Esme (Magda Szubanski) are not only utterly unique and memorable characters, but are also a splendid couple with a remarkable relationship.
Cromwell was nominated for an Oscar for his work as Arthur Hoggett. With his long, lined face and thoughtful eyes, he creates an indelible impression the sheep farmer — an achievement even more remarkable in light of how little dialogue he has. Few characters with so little to say have ever been so memorable. (Ironically, Cromwell took the role thinking it would be an easy part after scanning the script for his lines. Had he looked more closely, he’d have discovered he’s in practically every scene.)
But Magda Szubanski as Esme is even more extraordinary: With her endless stream of inconsequential chatter and artless delivery, she inhabits a character so prosaic, so un-self-consciously unreflective, that it never for an instant enters into her head even to wonder what lurks behind her husband’s taciturn silences and terse monosyllables. She’s so natural that Americans who don’t know her from anything else are often surprised to learn that she’s Australia’s favorite comedienne — that she could do or be anything other than Esme Hoggett.
Effects and animal handling. Endless pains went into training and shooting the enormous menagerie of animals necessary to bring Babe and his farmyard friends to life; and ground-breaking computer effects made them seem to lip-sync the dialogue. Director Chris Noonan knew that for the film to work, the effects would have to blend so seamlessly as to disappear, so that audiences could simply accept the animals as characters in a story. The stunning results won the film an Oscar for special effects.
At any one time there had to be six pigs to play Babe — and the pigs could only be used for a few weeks before they got too big and had to be replaced. Almost 50 bottle-fed, lovingly raised Large White Yorkshires (all tricked out in matching toupées) played the lovable piglet (along with an animatronic double created by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop). With the help of Christine Cavanaugh’s voice-work, a single, charming character emerges from all the behind-the-scenes hugger-mugger.
Music. If you watch this film even a couple of times, you’re going to be humming "Moonshine." This folk-style tune, which provides the film’s theme, is actually adapted (appropriately enough) from The Carnival of the Animals ("Symphony No. 3 in C") by Camille Saint-Saëns, and has been variously arranged throughout the film: from the lullaby-like strains of the opening credits, to Arthur Hoggett’s immortal Celtic jig, to the triumphant orchestral swells of the denouement, and finally, over the end credits, the fast-forward pop version performed by the mouse trio.
Other bits of music are equally well used. A scene in which Babe and the duck Ferdinand attempt to sneak in and out of the farmhouse without awakening the cat is perfectly accompanied by a nifty piece from Edvard Grieg ("Lyric piece No. 28, Op. 47, No. 6") that progresses from quiet string-picking (as the animals tiptoe back and forth) to orchestral frenzy (as chaos erupts), in a manner reminiscent of the musical high points of the best Warner Brothers cartoons, or even certain sequences in Fantasia (e.g., The Dance of the Hours).
Great scenes. An attempt adequately to comment on all of Babe’s noteworthy scenes (such as the Citizen Kane tribute and Hoggett’s jig) would quickly outweigh the original shooting script of the film. To pick just one such moment out of a hat, there’s a wordless shot (easily overlooked, but well worth noting) in a sequence with Hoggett shearing his flock.
This moment, the final image in the scene, gives us a low-angle shot of Hoggett standing framed against a golden sunset and billowing cumulus clouds, throwing out the final fleece like a blanket and allowing it to settle onto a stack of other fleeces. For just a moment, the woolly fleece hangs in the air amid the rolling clouds, with the sun’s rays shining through the translucent wool from the midst of the clouds. It’s as if Hoggett were rolling out the clouds themselves on the grass. Then he straightens to survey his work. It’s pure visual poetry — a quiet moment of movie magic.
Place. Hoggett Farm is more than a picturesque backdrop for talking animals of various species. It’s a rich setting where each species has a particular place and a particular outlook — almost a native culture — similar to that of other animals, but never quite the same, and always making sense given the animal’s place on the farm.
In a way, Babe’s barnyard culture evokes another magical film: Toy Story, with the plaything culture and value system of its personified toys. Yet Toy Story had basically one culture for all of Andy’s toys. On Hoggett Farm, there are important contrasts, even prejudices.
Take Rex and Fly, the border collies. Unlike the livestock, they’re allowed in the house with "the bosses" (i.e., the Hoggetts), and are valued not for anything they produce (wool or eggs or milk), or as food, but for their work. "The bosses only eat stupid animals," Fly explains to her puppies. The dogs particularly regard the sheep as stupid, while the sheep consider the dogs vicious "wolves." It’s a mark of the film’s subtlety and nuance that neither of these prejudices is is simply baseless, nor is either the whole truth.
The sheep and the cows have a stoic acceptance of their lot in life: "The way things are," the cow says placidly, "is the way things are." But Ferdinand the duck, who neither produces nor works and knows that he exists only to be eaten, vehemently rejects the status quo: "The way things are stinks!"
Ferdinand’s efforts to craft a new destiny for himself provide a comic counterpoint for Babe’s own aspirations of taking on an untraditional role. The duck is obssessed with making himself useful, so he won’t be eaten: "Humans don’t eat cats. Why? They’re indispensable. They catch mice. Humans don’t eat roosters. Why? They make eggs with the hens and wake everyone up in the morning. I tried it with the hens, it didn’t work. So I turned to crowing…"
But the cat herself, a Persian named Duchess, doesn’t see her own value in such utilitarian terms. "The cow’s here to be milked, the dogs are here to help the boss’s husband with the sheep, I’m here to be beautiful and affectionate to the boss…" she purrs. (Notice that Duchess, the only all-indoor animal, speaks of "the boss" and "the boss’s husband", whereas the other animals speak of "the boss" and "the boss’s wife.")
In Babe, as in Cats and Dogs, the cat is the heavy — a trend for which there is some explanation, as I pointed out in my review of the latter film. All the same, it’s fair to note that Babe softens the stereotype by having the narrator note: "There are many perfectly nice cats in the world, but every barrel has its bad apples, and it is well to heed the old adage, ‘Beware the bad cat bearing a grudge.’ "
The hero. Only Babe stands outside the other animals’ various points of view, and for a unique reason: As the lone pig on a sheep farm (won as a prize at a local fair), Babe is an outsider with no preassigned place. Thus, he is open-minded and free of preconceived notions. Adopted by the border collie Fly, Babe is told that sheep are inferior and stupid; yet he befriends Maa, the old ewe. Maa tells him that Fly is a vicious wolf, but Babe knows her to be gentle and loving.
Sometimes Babe’s lack of guile leaves him vulnerable to the special interests and intrigues of other animals (Ferdinand, Duchess). Yet in the end Babe has a lasting impact on animal relations at Hoggett Farm, in ways that arise perfectly naturally from plot points in the story. It’s here that this fable makes its gentle points about respect and overcoming prejudices.
Babe inevitably invites comparisons to another porcine protagonist, Wilbur of Charlotte’s Web (King-Smith’s novel has been called "a British Charlotte’s Web"). Yet if anything, it’s Wilbur who suffers from the comparison. Wilbur is a passive protagonist — a whiner whose main goal in life is not to be eaten, and whose main accomplishment is making friends with Charlotte, the crafty spider whose PR "spin" saves Wilbur’s bacon. Wilbur may be the main character of the story, but it’s Charlotte who’s the real hero.
Babe, by contrast, is the hero of his own story: He takes his fate in his own trotters, faces challenges, learns a life skill, and contests the mutual prejudices of his barnyard world. He’s spunky, personable, and polite to everyone.
He’s some pig.
The finale (spoilers). (If you haven’t seen the film, postpone reading further until you have.)
All of the foregoing builds to the enormously satisfying finale at the sheepdog trials, a scene Noonan approaches with the same unrushed confidence as Hoggett himself. Hoggett knows he’s got a brilliant animal, and Noonan knows he’s got a brilliant scene.
The silence in this scene is riveting. Babe’s earlier triumphs are scored by the orchestral strains of "Moonshine," but here the whole film seems to hold its breath as Babe daintily trots the course, putting the sheep through their paces. In the last seconds of the climax, with the sheep safely in the fold and Hoggett walking with his unhurried but determined stride to close the gate, Noonan zeroes in on the gate, dramatic, rapid cuts heightening the sense of moment, of anticipation — but then, just before the gate clicks shut, he cuts to the back of the stands, so that with the spectators we hear, rather than see, the latch close: the proverbial pin dropping.
The spectators rise as one and burst into whoops and cheers… and when you watch it, you want to do the same. The judges rating the pig’s performance might as well be grading the entire movie. Babe is a perfect 10.
Babe’s key moral themes — treating others with courtesy and respect, overcoming prejudices, facing challenges, seizing opportunities, and so forth — are inextricably bound up in its hero and its story, and have been touched upon above.
However, for the sake of readers who may encounter a couple of tiresome activist efforts to twist a popular movie into a tract for this or that cause, a few words about what is not the moral of this story may be helpful.
First, though, two caveats. One, if you haven’t yet seen the film, stop reading now. Two, unless you are concerned about activist efforts to misuse the film, you may find the following paragraphs more annoying than helpful. Even though the two activist misuses described are both refuted, you might enjoy the film more not even knowing how some people misuse it, than knowing both how they do it and why they are wrong.
With those caveats out of the way, here is the first point. Some vegetarians and animal-rights activists try to claim Babe as an anti-meat or animal-rights tract. This is absurd. Hoggett Farm, and the Hoggetts themselves, are far too delightful and endearing to allow any suggestion that the existence of the farm and the lifestyle of the farmers are somehow under fire in the movie. Ferdinand the duck may think there’s something ghastly about duck à l’orange for Christmas ("Christmas means dinner… dinner means death — death means carnage! Christmas means carnage!"). But Ferdinand is comic relief; his view is not that of the movie.
That humans eat ducks and pigs is a cold truth that Babe at first finds difficult to accept, but not one that he ultimately challenges or transforms (as he does the mutual prejudices of the animals). Even when Babe learns that his whole family has probably already been butchered, he responds not with moral outrage but bleak acceptance (bleak in part because he has been led to doubt his special relationship with Hoggett). The movie knows, in the end, that there’s nothing wrong with eating animals.
Second, some social activists read Babe as a challenge to every kind of absolute regarding social roles and expectations; as if a pig doing the work of a sheep dog suggested that sexual or familial roles were up for grabs. Belief in absolutes regarding social roles is linked in this view with the stern conservatism of Rex, who insists that every animal accept his place and opposes Babe’s sheep-pig career.
This, too, is absurd. It’s all well and good for a pig to learn to do the work of a sheep dog. But what about a duck trying to do the work of a rooster? Can a duck "make eggs with the hens"? If he tries to crow, is he not ridiculous? What about when he starts trying to ring like an alarm clock? Does Babe really imply that absolutely anyone can take on absolutely any role? Or is the point rather that some roles can be stretched or adjusted, while others can’t?
Women can fly fighter jets; twelve-year-olds can provide technical support; girls can be altar servers. But not everything is up for grabs. Marriage is always a husband and a wife; only women can conceive and give birth; only men can receive Holy Orders. Efforts to ignore or deny these constant truths are as misguided as Ferdinand’s efforts to make eggs with hens.
That’s not to say, of course, that Babe itself makes any such application. But plainly this is not remotely a tract against absolutes in social roles. No one should be deterred by this nonsense from seeing and enjoying this special film.
As an enthusiastic fan of the first Babe, I wanted to believe in the sequel, even if it did turn out to be too dark for young kids. After all, Miller was also the screenwriter and producer for the original film, directed by Chris Noonan. So I came to Babe: Pig in the City with high hopes.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.