A film review by Craig J. Koban
Anniversary Retrospective Review
th Anniversary Retrospective Review
1995, G, 91 mins
Farmer Hoggett: James Cromwell / Mrs. Hoggett: Magda Szubanski
And The Voices Of:
Babe: Christine Cavanaugh / Fly: Miriam Margolyes / Ferdinand: Danny Mann
/ Rex: Hugo Weaving /
Maa: Miriam Flynn / Cat: Russie Taylor / Old Ewe: Evelyn Krape
/ Narrator: Roscoe Lee Browne
The 1995 film BABE just may be the single greatest film about intelligent, talking farm animals that I have ever seen. Okay, obvious sarcasm aside, BABE is simply a magical, charming, smart, and unapologetically cuddly fable that is sincere and endearing in its own inherent entertainment value. There have been many (okay, far too many) films that have featured animals and/or babies that are able to talk well beyond their physiological means. Yet, despite that, BABE is a transcending family film in the way it does not pander down to our tastes and expectations.
One’s first instinct would be to mock a film about talking animals with a certain level of disdainful skepticism. Yet, BABE is a masterstroke work in the manner in which it goes out of its way to appeal to those who have achieved puberty and to those that have not. The film is light-hearted and cute enough to inspire the youngest of child, but it is also sly, smart, intelligent and endlessly imaginative enough to keep adults in their seats. That’s what a complete family entertainment should do – appease all parties in the theatre, regardless of age. BABE, on this level, is a true diamond in the rough.
BABE was inspired by the wonderfully titled BABE: THE GALLANT PIG, which was written by Dick King Smith. To look at the biography of Smith is to fully understand his future leanings in his literary career. Before he turned to the page he was a Gloucestershire-born farmer and after doing that for nearly 20 years he turned to teaching young children. Out of this endeavor grew his love of writing, more specifically family fantasies. Embodying the strong held principle that one should write about what they know and hold dear to heart, Smith penned stories set on farms and involved animals. He later dubbed these stories as “farmyard fantasies” as they often included animals that could talk to one another verbally. He especially loved pigs and saw a huge opportunity to involve this animal as the star of BABE: THE GALLANT PIG. Reading the book it is easy to draw worthy comparisons to CHARLOTTE’S WEB, another animal fantasy that combined a robust pleasure and love of rural surroundings with an irreverent affection and portrayal of animals. It’s no wonder that this splendid and sublime book was made into an equally delightful motion picture.
To adapt this beloved children’s book to the silver screen was none other than George Miller, an Australian filmmaker that does not seem, at first glance, the perfect choice for the project. He’s the writer/director of some of the best hard-boiled, post apocalyptic sci-fi action films of the last quarter of a century in the MAD MAX trilogy. He has also made dark works of the macabre like THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK and stirring, unsettling dramas like LORENZO’S OIL. Perhaps it was the inspired choice of Miller that acted as the springboard of sophistication to the film adaptation of BABE. In a lesser talent’s hands, the film could have degenerated into a mindless farce. Yet, Miller - in hindsight - has that right level of whimsicality, quirkiness, and humility as a filmmaker to infuse Smith’s creation with enough warmth and heart. There is wit, thought, and intelligence all through the screenplay. Yes, this is a film about a talking pig, but there are also subtle parables at every corner, like how noble creatures can build walls instead creating roadblocks as well as dissecting prejudice. I mean, can’t all barn animals just get along?
The film, appropriately, takes place in Australia, which gives the proceedings more of a hint of the otherworldly. Conventional wisdom would have set this American released film in a typical rural American setting, but this would have been far too ordinary for an animal fantasy. The young hero of the film is, naturally, Babe and we are introduced to him in an opening scene of melancholy and sadness. There is a hint of dark, comical irony in this moment, where Babe and the other pigs just can’t wait to be herded on a big cattle semi-truck and be whisked away to a pig-like euphoric world. They think they are going to the much-ballyhooed “Pig Paradise”. Unfortunately, no one seems to catch on that they are going to the slaughterhouse to later become a part of Denny’s breakfast dish of choice. Needless to say, the opening montage is ominous in its dread, but no little pigs were shown as being harmed in this production. For all of you card carrying members of PETA, you can now rest easy.
Unfortunately, Babe’s mother is taken away and, in one painfully heart-wrenching scene, he whimpers and cries for her. It’s emotionally distressing enough for one to almost give up pork. Well, luckily for the young piglet with a heart of gold, he does not get taken away on the truck. He is miraculously spared. A local Farmer named Hoggett (in James Cromwell’s best and most congenial performance) sees the pig, develops affection for him, and soon decides to take Babe home with him to his farm. The film, up until this point and beyond, is told with a storybook narration that further demonstrates the film’s cleverness with the underlining material. As it states, when the farmer and pig first exchange glances, it is as if something does pass between them…maybe a hint of a common destiny…perhaps? One thing sure is different between the two – the farmer says a lot less in the film than the pig.
Babe is brought to the Hogget farm, gloriously realized with vivid colors, simplistic art design, and glowing cinematography. An unlikely mother figure of sorts decides to adopt Babe – a female border collie. She is a kind and gentle dog and decides to raise the pig as one of her own pups. This, as you may have guessed, does not sit well with the male collie of the family, Rex, who surely does not like his tight family unit desegregated. He does not hate the pig; he just despises the thought of the pig tarnishing the fine generation of former collies in his line. Animals have never been so personal, proud, and protective of their heritage as they are in BABE.
The colorful and eclectic assortment of other farm characters does not end here. We soon meet up with arguably the funniest of the animals in Ferdinand, a duck that - like Babe’s species reversal - really wants to be a rooster (he is shown crowing in the morning to wake everyone up). Ferdinand is largely a defeatist and pragmatist in his outlook of the whole farm and realizes that he and many of the other animals will eventually see a dark fate. In one of the film’s most self-aware laughs, he screams out to Babe, “Christmas? Christmas means dinner, dinner means death! Death means carnage; Christmas means carnage!” Babe, being the enormously naďve sort, politely responds, “Huh, I beg your pardon.”
Ferdinand becomes close friends with Babe, but he is also the kind of confidant that you wish you did not have. He constantly tries to clue Babe into a possible grizzly death at the hands of the Hoggets. Every animal is on a pecking order in terms of purpose. “Look, there's something you should know,” Ferdinand tells Babe, “Humans eat ducks! Ah, most ducks would like to forget it, but the fact is that humans like to eat plump, attractive ducks.” When Babe refuses to believe him, he furthers his logical proof. “Cats, for example, are indispensable: they catch mice. Humans don't eat roosters - why? They make eggs with the hens and wake everyone up in the morning.”
Babe, of course, remains elusive on the Ferdinand’s theory. The Hogget’s just seem, well, too nice. They could never, ever possibly slaughter and eat animals for food. Babe soon meets up with another disturbing animal, the farm cat, who has one mean disposition (the narrator cheerfully and humorously explains, “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.'" Being a cat owner, I can attest to this assertion). The cat does not like Babe from the get-go and will do anything to shake his confidence in living at the farm. During one fireside chat the cat tells Babe, “Oh, all right. For your own sake, I'll be blunt. Why do the Bosses keep ducks? To eat them. So why do the Bosses keep a pig? The fact is that animals that don't seem to have a purpose really do have a purpose. The Bosses have to eat. It's probably the most noble purpose of all, when you come to think about it.” As for her purpose, she has a simple answer. “I'm here to be beautiful, and affectionate to the Boss.”
Nevertheless, Babe still derives pleasure from his newfound farm life. Despite his youthful ignorance and lack of decent common sense, he is really very meek tempered and resourcefully smart. He soon becomes smart enough to discover his true calling life – he has natural inbred sheep herding abilities. Farmer Hogget sees his abilities but…c’mon…a pig as a sheepherder…no way! Can’t be for real. Yet, little Babe does show the initial signs of an inclination towards herding sheep. Babe does get some advice from his mother, which is probably not the type of good words of wisdom to give a young son. “Bite them! Whatever it takes to make them listen and obey you!” Babe can’t believe his mother’s words. His first attempt at herding inspires laughter. He then goes back to his mom and explains, “This is ridiculous!” Yeah, no kidding.
The mother remains steadfast in her advice, but Babe is too kind to bite or yell at anything. The mother sees his problems right away. “You're treating them like equals. They're sheep, they're inferior,” she tells Babe. He sure does not think so – what has a sheep ever done to him? The mother, growing more agitated, lashes out, “We are their masters, Babe. Let them doubt it for a second and they'll walk all over you.” Babe, being a responsive son, tries out his mother’s advice and goes for his first bite. The sheep, of course, is not so much hurt by the meager nip as it is offended by it. “I’m sorry I bit you, “ Babe tells the sheep. She kindly responds, “You could just politely ask us to move instead of biting.”
The sheep then let's Babe in on a little secret and, without revealing it, Babe does, in fact, manage to move the herd without force or cruelty. When he returns to his mother she incredulously asks him how he did it. “I asked them and they did it. I just asked them nicely,” he responds. The mother then tells Babe that you should never ask an inferior animal what to do. Babe, true to his character, retorts, “But I did, Mom. They were really friendly." How dare the dog doubt one of the animal kingdom’s smartest animals? Remember, it has been scientifically postulated that pigs are smarter than dogs.
This all builds up to a rousing third act where Hogget sees the potential in Babe where no one else of a rightfully sane mind does. He decides to take the talented pig to the National Sheep Dog Trials. The other contestants are snobs, to say the least. They can’t believe the nerve of a pig being entered in a show that is dog territory (even the humans in the film are as animal and ethnocentric as the creatures). I don't think I need to state what happens next, but in the fine words of the narration and a now famous line that has entered our movie lexicon, the voice over says, “And though every single human in the stands or in the commentary boxes was at a complete loss for words, the man who in his life had uttered fewer words than any of them knew exactly what to say. (Hogget to Babe) That’ll do pig. That’ll do.”
BABE works so wonderfully on so many distinct levels. The film is, truth be told, irrepressibly cute and adorable – only the most cynical hearted viewer will not find Babe to be radiating sweetness and lovability. Yet, the film does not hammer home the sentimentality and eye candy to win popular favour. At its core, this is a carefully constructed social fable and message film about tolerance, respect, and breaking down damaging prejudice and discriminatory behavior. It is about how the least respected and appreciated barn animal, the pig, is made into the ultimate persona of unity and compassion of the farm. Babe may not be able to see that he could have been made into ham sandwiches at any time, but he is astute and caring enough to bridge gaps between even the most hated of enemies. He is, as the narrator explains, “an unprejudiced heart” that changes the farm forever. Most children’s films these days either are void of pertinent messages or throw them down our throats until we gag. BABE is subtle, sly, satirical, and creative with its morals, something that too many children’s films lack are not.
BABE’s real strength is in the way it fosters our believability in the animals. There is not one frame of the film where I did not believe that, yes, pigs could talk with dogs, or ducks, or horses. Past films about talking animals worked “on the cheap” by just putting in the voices on the soundtrack without any lip movement, ala LOOK WHO’S TALKING or MILO AND OTIS. BABE is in a whole other artistic stratosphere as it combines everything from real animals to Jim Henson’s miraculous Puppet creations to CGI special effects to make all of the animals realistically mouth the words they are speaking. Because of a pig’s quick lifespan where they grow incredibly fast, 48 Yorkshire pigs were used alone to portray Babe, plus one animatronic double. The result of these hybrid techniques is amazingly seamless. This is especially true of three tiny mice that punctuate all of the film’s chapter intros often with song. BLUE MOON will never, ever be the same.
In the annals of the last decade of American cinema, BABE became the most unlikely critical darling of the masses and critics. Families ate the film up in 1995 and it went on to gross a quarter of a billion dollars worldwide in box office receipts. The film also won over the hearts of the nation’s critics, who all applauded the film’s audacity and spirited imagination (the late Gene Siskel placed the film as his best of 1995). Even the Academy awarded the film with 7 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director for Chris Noonan, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Art Direction, Best Supporting Actor for Cromwell (his role was limited, but unforgettable). The film rightfully took home a statuette for Best Visual Effects, but failed in the other categories. It faced some real tough competition for Best Picture in the form of APOLLO 13, IL POSTINO, SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, and BRAVEHEART (the eventual winner). It may not have been those films’ equals on certain levels, but BABE’S inclusion with them demonstrates the Academy’s willingness to be more open-mined with their selections.
BABE, even ten year’s after its release, remains one of the more endlessly inventive, elegant, and appealing of family films. It does what all great fantasies do in transporting the viewer into worlds than feel vaguely familiar, but breathe life with other colorful and innovative nuances. It creates a real world where you do believe, within a few moments, that pigs can, in fact, talk and interact with other barn animals and eventually - when all is said and done - become sheep herders. The film is kind and gentle, but cunning enough in it’s writing for adults to understand and appreciate its humor. Here’s a film that knows it’s cute through and through, but does not dwell on it. The attractiveness of the scenery and animals are almost secondary elements. It’s kind of ironic, but the animals in BABE are more well- rounded, believable, and endearing than most human figures in lesser films. That is the cinemagic of the film – it makes us believe in the unbelievable.