Thursday, June 27, 2013


I have begun and restarted this review of Babe (1995) twice now. In the first attempt, I opened with a personal anecdote, and the second included some snark on my part. I ditched both attempts because even though they were well written and funny, they weren't fair to the film. A movie like this deserves a straightforward, honest write-up from the reviewer. To put it bluntly, if you're capable of feeling any human emotion, you'll be moved by Babe.

Babe tells the story of Babe (voice of Christine Cavanugh), a small but good-hearted pig who is won in a contest by Farmer Hoggett (James Cromwell, who was nominated for an Oscar here) and taken back to his Australian farm, where Mrs. Hoggett (Magda Szubanski) looks forward to fattening the pig up for Christmas dinner. Babe, missing his mother, is adopted by the sheep dog Fly (voice of Miriam Margolyes), who raises him alongside her pups, even letting the pig call her Mom. Farmer Hoggett notices something special about this pig, and eventually, Babe is training to be a sheep dog, much to the dismay of Rex (voice of Hugo Weaving), a dog who prefers keeping things the way they are with all the animals in their proper roles.

There's just something about a story that presents animals talking amongst themselves with humans oblivious to the fact. It's almost like a game with a secret we as the audience are privy to, even though, if we were in the story, the joke would be on us. The world presented in Babe is recognizable: farms, cars, TVs, real-world animals, etc., but there is the sense of magic just beneath its surface. It's not like Star Wars or Harry Potter in that regard, but there a whimsical fantasy for those who know where to look.

The animals not only speak and interact with other, they showcase distinctive personalities and foibles. The narrative is divided into little segments with chapter titles introduced by a chorus of singing mice; the sheep, led by the elderly ewe Maa (Mariam Flynn), resent being bitten and insulted by the sheep dogs and inform Babe they will listen to him if he asks nicely; Ferdinand the duck (Danny Mann) pretends he's a rooster to keep from being eaten; and Rex, the aggressive alpha dog, is revealed as a mostly deaf canine whose chance at stardom was destroyed when he tried to save a group of panicky sheep from a flood.

Fortunately, the human characters aren't shortchanged by the emphasis on the animals. The Hoggetts are an eccentric couple, to the say the least. Farmer Hoggett doesn't have much dialogue, but his mannerisms, poise, and actions convince us there's a thoughtful, perhaps wily streak beneath his gruff, silent exterior; he knows others think him a fool, but he doesn't care. Mrs. Hoggett is the busy-body type, and she loves her husband but thinks he's only embarrassing himself with some of his ideas.

But the real joy of Babe is seeing this little pig, an innocent creature who doesn't have a mean bone or prejudice, interact with all the other animal on the farm and win them over on the strength of sincerity. On a farm in which all creatures stick to their own kind and distrust the other species, Babe crosses those barriers and is the one to bring everyone together. Babe doesn't do it by making pedantic speeches or performing contrived stunts; he does it by being himself, to the growing admiration and respect of those around him who had previously discarded, misused, or ignored him.

Babe the movie is live action with the animal performers brought to life by a combination of real critters, animatronics by Jim Henson's workshop, and animation, and the effect is seamless and convincing throughout; sub-par effects could have brought the whole enterprise down. Credit must also be given to the human actors, especially Cromwell. The animals only talk among themselves, never with the humans, and it's up to Cromwell, when he's with Babe, to convince us there's something special to this little. Because Farmer Hoggett believes it, the audience can believe it.

The premise of Babe, in the wrong hands, could have been so cloying or false on the level of a mindless children's program, but the filmmakers, which include co-writer and producer George Miller of the Mad Max movies and director Chris Noonan, know the line between enchanting and phony. When I sat down to watch it, based on a recommendation from a co-worker, I was afraid that since I hadn't seen it as a kid, I had missed out. Instead, Babe appeals to adults and children.

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