Film Reviews

Spicy pork surprise

At first, adults might not see the delightful kid-flick Babe as an intelligent, even brave film. The film's clever combination of stunts by live animals and incredibly expressive animatronic puppets makes you suspicious, a little fearful it might become an ordeal of gimmicks.

The story unleashes a barnyard full of four-footed personalities with some very fragile egos and a compulsive need to label each other. While cleverness easily could have been the film's greatest ambition (a quality not always present in the recent crop of children's films starring animals--check out the turgid, ghoulish Fluke), the creators behind this slop-to-satin saga chose to steer the film into some fairly deep waters.

Babe isn't afraid to depict a small world in turmoil, where everyone is assigned a role but can't wait to escape it. Even so, the virtue of enduring hardship is celebrated with solemn joy, just as in the recent critical hit A Little Princess.

Australian filmmaker George Miller (the Mad Max films, Lorenzo's Oil) is the dominant creative force as producer and co-screenwriter with Chris Noonan, who makes his feature debut as Babe's director. The film was adapted from a series of books by prolific British author Dick King-Smith about a cheerfully innocent pig who demolishes class systems with one brush of his hoof. The film expands the author's simple theme--that a society tolerant of individuals is beneficial to everyone.

Don't worry--you won't drown in liberal platitudes. Babe confronts stuff that won't go away if we all just get along: personal failures, betrayal, death, and other examples of life's nasty briar patches. The big-hearted little pig risks it all to earn the respect of his barnyard neighbors--and avoid a tragic end for himself.

The scatterbrained humans who lord it over this bestial community are a tall, brooding farmer (James Cromwell) and his fat, overprotective wife (Magda Szubanski). While every animal contributes to the farm's operations, they labor under a rigid caste system enforced by the more intelligent beasts. Everyone knows, and is taught to accept, his or her purpose--some are there to be loved, some to herd sheep, some to give eggs or milk...and some to be slaughtered.

The eponymous porker travels a dangerous, sometimes even scary road. Won at a raffle by the farmer, who purchases our hero so the wife can fatten him for a holiday meal, Babe strikes up friendships (and is sometimes betrayed by) everyone in the farm's menagerie--an idealistic but reckless duck; passive-aggressive sheep who come to idolize Babe for his courtesy and innate goodness; a nurturing border collie and her volatile mate, a deaf sheepdog; and a cat that takes revenge by revealing to Babe the secret of this porker's noble, but bloody, function in the higher scheme.

With the encouragement of a canine surrogate mother, Babe decides to break tradition and become a sheepherder. The way he tackles the job is decidedly unusual--he flatters the sheep instead of threatening them like dogs do. Soon the farmer, who is of course oblivious to all the animal controversy, senses that our porcine protagonist has shaken things up on the farm.

Risking the condemnation of everyone, including hundreds of spectators at the local sheepdog trials, the farmer and the pig test their faith in each other's talents. The story trots earnestly into a Rocky finale, but along the way Babe must learn to negotiate with animals who don't like him because he's a pig, and other animals who don't like him because he hangs out with so many different kinds of animals.

Everyone who reflects on the themes in Babe will interpret the message in a slightly different way. Have the producers launched a plea for tolerance of the individual, or a bid for community cooperation as the ultimate virtue? The film startles you with some of the conclusions it draws: life is rough, and since we're all stuck on the same farm, we'd better try to get along whether we like each other or not. The different moral lessons are prefaced by onscreen chapter titles such as "Crime and Punishment" and "The Destiny Pig," announced by a Greek chorus of mice who harbor a hint of malevolence in their gleeful chirps.

The vague sense of dread that hangs over Babe turns grim when the writers address issues of death and violent separation--one of Babe's closest protectors is killed by a wild dog; Babe wanders, by accident, into the slaughterhouse, and stares at the hooks dangling overhead; and the animals gather outside the kitchen window on Christmas morning to watch the farmer carve up one of their feathery friends as holiday supper. In a somber discussion, the animals offer their ideas about mortality--each opinion determined, of course, by their position in the farm hierarchy.

These animal characters make decisions that have tough consequences--sometimes beneficial, sometimes destructive, sometimes nearly fatal. King-Smith envisioned a morality play about a rigid social order that's turning everyone against each other, and screenwriters Miller and Noonan brought the concept to vivid life with a witty, character-rich script. An international cast of imaginative vocal actors (headed by the Oscar-nominated English actress Miriam Margoyles and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert star Hugo Weaving) sculpts the dialogue into contentious and witty conversations.

The movie loses some of its sweet mystery when you discuss the production details, but the project stands as a remarkable feat: 600 animal trainers taught simple Pavlovian tricks to 500 animals, many of whom were bred for this film. Then Miller, Noonan, and cinematographer Andre Leslie photographed the results and interspersed them with lively repartee from the animatronic puppets designed by Jim Henson's Creature Shop in London. The resourceful Babe was actually played by 48 different pigs.

With its seamless marvel of interwoven filmmaking tricks, Babe serves an epic quest--to show the determination of one soul to follow his muse, come hell or high water. The script crackles with a boisterous enthusiasm and bracing honesty few recent children's film scripts can claim. The language conveys the passion of cantankerous creatures to protect their dignity, and carries you into unexpected--but never inappropriate--corners.

Babe. Universal. James Cromwell, Magda Szubanski. Written by George Miller and Chris Noonan, from the book by Dick King-Smith. Directed by Chris Noonan. Opens August 4.

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Jimmy Fowler