Thank the Pig Babe: Pig in the City By David MacGregor. Babe: Pig in the City (1998) is one of the best films ever made. There. I said it. It’s in print and thus it must be true...
Babe: Pig in the City (1998) is one of the best films ever made. There. I said it. It’s in print and thus it must be true. Babe: Pig in the City is one of the best films ever made. Hands down. No question. No joke. It really is. It’s an idea that can set your mind reeling. Surely, great films are about great people doing great things and with any luck, dying slow, lingering deaths that allow us to bask in their heroism, heartbreak, and humanity. How can a film about a talking pig measure up? Beyond that, how can a sequel about a talking pig measure up? Well, you’re going to have to trust me on this – it can. It does. In terms of script, directing, acting, sound and editing, it is a brilliant film, a stunning tour de force that has no business being as good as it is.
It’s a film that was the brainchild of George Miller, who produced, wrote, and directed it. Now, the odds are you’ve never heard of George Miller. You hear the name and think, isn’t he some country singer? He’s our insurance agent, right? Didn’t he used to do our taxes? He would probably be much better known if he had a splendid director name like Federico Fellini or Akira Kurosawa or Ingmar Bergman. By comparison, the name George Miller has kind of a damp squib feel about it.
Mind you, he didn’t start out at as George Miller. He started out as George Miliotis, a bouncing baby boy born to Greek immigrant parents in Chinchilla, Australia. And he didn’t start out as a screenwriter and director. He quite sensibly became a medical doctor and it was the time he spent in an emergency room reassembling human beings which inspired short films like Violence in the Cinema: Part I (1971) and his first feature film, Mad Max (1979). More recently, his attention has been focused on lovable penguins in the films Happy Feet (2006) and the cleverly titled Happy Feet 2 in 3D (2011).
So then, this is a filmmaker who began his career by exploring the joys of red-hot pokers being shoved through eyeballs and innocent women and children being brutally murdered by bikers, before transforming into a director quite happy to make films devoted to the wacky antics of animated flightless aquatic birds. And in between these two filmmaking extremes is Babe: Pig in the City. How to best describe this film? It is Blade Runner for little kids. It is George Orwell’s Animal Farm on celluloid. And it is a film which has two characteristics meticulously avoided by most cinematic fare – it is both clever and wise.
It began life, of course, as a sequel to the beloved film, Babe (1995). Based on the novel The Sheep-Pig (1983) by Dick King-Smith, Babe told the unlikely story of a pig who learned to herd sheep, and this rather simple premise so underwhelmed anyone interested in investing in a movie, Miller spent close to a decade trying to get the film underway. Ultimately made for an estimated $30 million over a period of more than two years, the film brought in over $250 million. All of a sudden the idea of a sheep-herding pig seemed quite wonderful. The film won a Golden Globe for Best Comedy, was named Best Film by both the London Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics (USA), and it is the last G-rated movie to have been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Film. Beyond that, perhaps no film has inspired more people to give up bacon than Babe. Clearly, a sequel was in order and Miller was up to the task. This time, not only did Miller pen the screenplay and produce the film, he also directed it.
And it’s here that our tale turns a little sad. Babe: Pig in the City had a production budget in the $80-90 million range, but upon release, the film that didn’t even pull in $70 million. In movie terms (as well as any other terms), that’s not a good thing. The critical response was all over the map. Either it was a "brilliant" (Entertainment Weekly) "tour de force" (Variety) which is "more magical than the original" (Chicago Sun-Times) and "George Miller’s masterpiece" (Chicago Reader), or it was a "desperate, pathetic mess" (San Francisco Chronicle) that had "lost its bearings" (NY Times) and was "likely to make kids cry" (Mr. Showbiz).
Why this extraordinary range of responses from people who all watched the same film? Well, for the most part, the critics who panned the film fell prey to that most insidious of critical pitfalls, judging the film for what they thought it should be instead of what it is. The original Babe was cute and funny and full of cute and cuddly animals doing cute and cuddly things; therefore, the sequel should essentially be the same film. It wasn’t. And while some critics were able to judge the sequel on its own merits, others felt that their expectations had been betrayed, so the film must be bad. When challenged, any critic can fall back on the usual comfy rationale that he is entitled to his opinion. This is true. However, most critics are unlikely to face up to the little-known corollary to this "I’m entitled to my opinion" mantra. What is that corollary? Some opinions are bad. Yes, I know that amounts to cultural heresy, and I fully expect a moral relativism SWAT team to knock my door down at any moment, but it’s true. Some opinions are goofy. Others are asinine. Plenty of opinions are just flat out stupid. If you doubt this, consider the following:
- The Ford Pinto is the finest car ever made.
- The Detroit Lions have been in the best team in the NFL for the past fifty years.
Both of these opinions are available to anyone, but they’re not very good opinions. And so it is with the critics who panned Babe: Pig in the City. Yes, they are entitled to a negative opinion, but it’s not a very good opinion. As noted, not only is it a good film, it is one of the best films ever made. It may sound wrong to say that about a film starring a talking pig, but here again, the trick is to overcome preconceived notions about what can be good or bad. It’s entirely possible that Jerry Lewis could sit down and write a play far superior to anything Shakespeare or Ibsen ever wrote. It’s possible that Mike Tyson could compose a symphony every bit as brilliant as anything created by Mozart or Beethoven. But even if Jerry Lewis or Mike Tyson did such a thing, they would never be recognized for it, because we would be unable to see or judge their works on their own merits. Our preconceived notions limit our ability to see things as they really are to a considerable extent, which is why Babe: Pig in the City is unlikely to be ranked up there with Citizen Kane and The Godfather. But it should be.
What makes Babe: Pig in the City so special? Well, in the first place, it has the cojones to be nothing like the gentle, amusing, bucolic original. As the film opens, it seems as if it will be. As you may or may not recall, Babe concludes with Babe’s stunning victory in a sheepdog trial. The sequel picks up where the original left off, and we see Babe and Farmer Hoggett returning home in triumph with an enormous trophy after their great adventure together.
Soon enough trouble in the form of evil bankers comes to the Hoggett homestead, and Babe and Mrs. Hoggett attempt to travel to a distant fair for a much needed appearance fee to prevent the bankers from foreclosing on their farm. However, a missed connecting flight strands the intrepid duo, and they are forced to venture into the big city of Metropolis. It is here that the film takes a turn into the fantastically surreal, as Babe and Mrs. Hoggett venture into an urban landscape that is absolutely unique in the history of film and which might best be described, in Hollywood-ese, as Dali meets Disney.
Babe and Mrs. Hoggett are put up in a home that caters to a rather special clientele; specifically, animals that have been abandoned or otherwise made homeless by capricious and uncaring humans. Cats, dogs, goldfish, light-fingered chimpanzees and a well-dressed orangutan by the name of Thelonius all coexist in a world that would like nothing more than for them to disappear for good. Beyond that, there are three mice who work as a kind of Greek Chorus as events unfold, Mickey Rooney appears as a decrepit and barely coherent clown, and a homicidal bull terrier who is out to kill Babe philosophizes about his brutal nature by explaining, "A murderous shadow lies hard across my soul."
If all that sounds as if it might be a bit much for your average six-year-old, well, it is. In truth, this film is no more for children than Orwell’s Animal Farm is a good bedtime story for little Johnny. A chase scene featuring a Doberman pinscher and the aforementioned bull terrier hurtling after Babe in murderous pursuit is accompanied by narration by the inimitable Roscoe Lee Browne and the beautiful Humming Chorus from Madame Butterfly.
A long-time fan of mythologist Joseph Campbell, George Miller (much like Fellini), claims that all of his films are basically the same movie, whether they involve Apocalyptic survivors in the Outback or tap-dancing penguins. And in both of the Babe films, the character of Babe embarks on the classic journey of the hero, much like Odysseus and Luke Skywalker before him. That’s part of the appeal of the films, but perhaps a larger part of the appeal of Miller’s films is that they are well-written. As Miller himself has noted, "I don’t see myself as a filmmaker, I really don’t. I’m led mainly by my curiosity, and the thing I’m the most curious about is the writing, and the telling of the story, which begins with the writing."
Any filmmaker who prioritizes the writing of the script is a rarity to be cherished, because we don’t see their like very often. Make no mistake about it, Miller can create stunts and use animatronics and CGI with the best of them, but they are there to serve the story and the characters, not replace them.
And so it was that at the end of 1998 when all the film critics on the planet sat down to vote for the best film of the year, most of them went for the obvious and predictable choices of either Saving Private Ryan or Shakespeare in Love. One critic, however, did not. Gene Siskel, the reviewer for the Chicago Tribune, boldly declared that Babe: Pig in the City was the best film of the year. Somehow, he was able to look past the shadow of its predecessor Babe, and he was not deterred by the fact that the film starred a talking pig. He was able to see the film for what it was – an elegant, funny, timeless, and beautiful fable. In short, if you can somehow let go of your preconceived notions of what a great film can be, Babe: Pig in the City is a film that you will want to watch again immediately after you have seen it. It’s that stunning. It’s that good. And no, it’s not for kids.
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