Babe: Pig in the City came to theaters with some baggage. Early negative buzz described the much-anticipated sequel to the instant classic Babe as "scary" and "too dark for kids." Parents were put off, critical reaction was decidedly mixed, and the film’s frustrated defenders, touting its visuals and its daring, argued that (a) kids could handle it, and (b) even if it wasn’t appropriate for young kids, it was still a great film for adults and older kids.
"You can’t soft-pedal, especially with kids," says Pig in the City writer-director George Miller. "They, too, live in a world where with every bit of joy, there’s sadness, with every life, there’s death. You must deal with both sides or the piece is not whole." 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.
I smiled through the whole first scene: a triumphal celebration for Babe in the wake of his victory at the sheep-dog trials. There was James Cromwell as Hoggett, Magda Szubanski as Mrs. Hoggett, the familiar cadences of Roscoe Lee Browne as the Narrator, and the strains of "Moonshine" in the background. A clever sight gag made me laugh out loud: In the air a pair of planes was sky-writing, and they spelled out "HAM" — before each plane added one letter to the beginning and the end of the word, changing "HAM" to "CHAMP."
I was happy. Then came the second scene. And the next one. And the next.And you know what? Never mind the kids — it was too dark for me.
No, that doesn’t begin to cover it. Babe is a great film — "the Citizen Kane of talking pig pictures," as one critic put it. I’m tempted to extend the Orson Welles theme and dub this sequel "the Touch of Evil of talking pig pictures"; but that would be glib. Closer to the mark would be "the Blade Runner of talking pig pictures." Or perhaps, given Miller’s body of work, the Mad Max. Now, Touch of Evil, Blade Runner, and Mad Max are all, in their own ways, great films. But can it be unclear to anyone that the kind of greatness they have is utterly incompatible with the greatness of Babe? Can it be that the mere sight of little Babe wearing a spiked pit-bull collar wouldn’t strike any fan of the first film as fundamentally wrong? Apparently it can: Roger Ebert, who liked the first film, thought the second one was even better. This is insanity. Would anyone go for a sequel to The Wizard of Oz that catapulted Dorothy and Toto into the world of Once Were Warriors or Escape From New York?
I give Miller credit for this much: He didn’t just try to duplicate the success of Babe with an insipid carbon copy of the first film. He tried to do something new. A sequel ought to go beyond its predecessor, or it’s not worth making. At the same time, a sequel that simply chucks the spirit of the original to the winds is not worth doing as a sequel. Here is a thought experiment. Suppose Babe: Pig in the City were retitled Gordy: Pig in the City. (Gordy was a less-than-spectacular talking-pig picture that had the great misfortune of coming out the same year as the original Babe.) Suppose that a few minor cosmetic changes were made, such as redubbing the voices of the pig and the narrator with different actors, and editing out Ferdinand and the singing mice. At that point, would anything in the film cry out that it was meant to be a sequel to Babe, not Gordy? And if not, then isn’t it obvious that this an in-name-only sequel merely cashing in on the success of the first film?
True, Magda Szubanski as Esme Hoggett is hard to overlook: She’s almost as prevalent in this film as Cromwell was in the first (Cromwell himself has only cameos here). Yet (and this is an odd thing) Szubanski doesn’t sound like she’s playing the same character here. And she’s not the only one. Most of the characters in Babe had nondescript accents that could have been from almost anywhere, from the English countryside to the Australian highlands. Yet in Pig in the City, several returning characters (including Esme, Rex, and Fly) suddenly have what sounds like a Scottish burr. The change is so marked that I was initially sure that some of the characters couldn’t be voiced by the same actors — but they are, with one crucial exception: Babe himself, who ironically sounds almost right (he’s voiced by E. G. Daily, doing a credible impression of Christine Cavanaugh from the first film).
Although these vocal variations are a small thing, nowhere near the top of my list of problems with the film, they did contribute to my overall impression that Pig in the City never quite succeeds in recreating the world of the first film. Even in the early scenes, I was never convinced that this was really Hoggett Farm, really Rex and Fly, really Mrs. Hoggett, really Babe. It’s all very close but somehow not quite right, as if the story takes place in some parallel "Mirror, Mirror" universe.
In a way, I would be glad to imagine that Szubanski’s character isn’t really Esme Hoggett. I liked Esme and her life on Hoggett Farm; and what she goes through in Pig in the City shouldn’t happen to anyone — certainly not her. I can’t even imagine the mindset of someone who could think that it would be a good idea to take this character and have her be (I swear I am not making up any of the following):
Violet Beauregarde, of course, was a spoiled brat, created for a story of grotesquerie by the grand master of the grotesque, Roald Dahl. It can be maintained that she had it coming to her; or, at least, that we might have expected it. Esme Hoggett, on the other hand, is a pleasant character created for one of the sweetest children’s books ever written. She deserves better. Szubanski soldiers gamely through this material like the professional she is, but her bravery only makes the abuse of her character more of an outrage.
At least I’m sure you’ll be pleased to learn that, after enduring all these indignities, Esme (if indeed it was she) does triumph over adversity and succeed in her quest: At long last, she gets Babe back. Yes, the status quo is restored! Wait, there’s more: A shower of blue balloons comes down from the ballroom ceiling! And then a well-dressed orangutan catches a newborn chimp when it falls from the high ceiling where it’s been hanging from a live electric wire getting electrocuted! And then the chimp parents thank the orangutan, who tells them, "Thank the pig" — I’m not sure why. Still, it’s all so moving, when the triumphant orchestral swells of "Moonshine" started up again, I felt like being sick.
Esme’s horrific experiences are mirrored by Babe’s own. The bad times begin for Babe in the very second scene, which contains a shockingly violent and extended sequence with Hoggett sustaining catastrophic injuries in an accident that plays like a scene out of a Coyote-Road Runner cartoon. Perhaps the most distressing thing about this scene is that it was originally even more violent and frightening, before director Miller toned it down when test audiences thought Hoggett was dead. (It still seemed like a real possibility to me.) If this is the toned-down version, I’d hate to see what originally seemed appropriate to Miller. This accident provides the McGuffin that gets Esme and Babe off Hoggett Farm and into The City: With Hoggett laid up, the bank is going to foreclose on the farm. (Babe is supposed to appear in a sheep-dog show for money, but he never gets there, and in the end the farm crisis is simply dissolved in a textbook case of deus ex machina.) This leads to a sequence in which Babe witnesses Esme’s luggage being stolen by a mischievous chimp, gives chase, and ends up trapped inside a trunk by apes, unable to signal Esme, who is nearby inquiring about him.
Babe is then repeatedly lied to and tricked by the apes, who first con him into participating in a stage show (promising him money to save the farm), then send him down a dark alley where they tell him there are sheep for him to herd, but in fact he finds ferocious guard dogs lying in wait. One of these guard dogs, a vicious pit bull, relentlessly pursues Babe in an extended chase sequence that climaxes with Babe falling into a canal and the dog hanging upside down from a bridge with his head underwater, drowning. (Babe saves him before he dies.) This act of kindness wins Babe the support of the pit bull, leading to one of the few uplifting moments in the film, with the City’s homeless animals gathering in a derelict hotel, sharing jelly beans, and engaging in a rousing choral round of "Moonshine."
But this brief moment is immediately followed by one of the longest and most pathetic sequences in the film. Animal-control forces besiege the hotel, inexorably cornering one cowering, cringing animal after another before caging, chaining, and dragging them away. This scene drags on and on, and there are no depths to which the filmmakers will not stoop to heighten the pathos. Thus we get an episode in which animal-control forces discover the well-dressed orangutan hiding in a room, protectively clutching a goldfish bowl. The ape shows no concern about hiding or getting away himself: He only wants to save the goldfish. So, naturally, the humans come over and snatch him roughly away, sending the fishbowl smashing to the floor, with the goldfish flopping helplessly about. (The fact that Babe subsequently sends the fish flying out a window into a canal system only slightly mitigates the pathos of the vignette.) In another bit, the chimp father leaps heroically but futilely to the defense of his mate and twin newborns, whose recent birth seems to have been put in the screenplay solely to provide the film with babies to be menaced. It’s a measure of the film’s miscalculation that, after having suffered through this exhausting sequence, the viewer is rewarded with a title card alerting us of impending "Chaos Revisited." Whatever follows, it can’t be chaos revisited, only chaos prolonged.)
In addition to the ubiquitous spirit of menace, the film is also overshadowed by a constant display of grotesquerie utterly dissonant with the first film. Babe takes place in a stylized but picturesque world that, in spirit if not always in detail, represents a traditional, almost archetypal way of life. Salt-of-the-earth types like the Hoggetts, living in places like Hoggett Farm, going to village fairs and sheep-dog trials — it’s all foreign to most of us, yet somehow familiar. We feel it is somehow necessary that this way of life should exist, even if it isn’t our way of life. But the world of Babe: Pig in the City is a never-ending parade of freaks, bullies, curiosities, and misfits. The movie gives us two separate encounters with hog-nosed men who both look a little like Disney’s Quasimodo and who help Esme because they identify with her pig; a little dog with crippled hind legs whose rear half rides in a rickshaw-like wheelchair; a pink poodle whose character is written like a slut, who hooks up with the pit bull before leaving him with the kids (little pit bulls with pink wigs); and the orangutan who pathetically doesn’t feel right unless he’s fully dressed.
I could go on, but what would be the point? What was Miller thinking? Granted that sorrow and tension are appropriate elements of children’s entertainments, what’s the theory behind an entertainment of such unremitting menace and pathos and grotesquerie that it crushes virtually any sense of joy or pleasure from the proceedings, an entertainment bereft of any sense of triumph or accomplishment?
Babe: Pig in the City does contain one (1) achievement worth noting: The City itself, a triumph of imagination, set design, and special effects. Like Hoggett Farm in the first film, the City is a veritable character in the story, with its canals and bridges, and its skyline amalgamated from a dozen real-life cities. Now, I’m the last — the very last — person in the world to underplay a spectacularly inventive movie cityscape. In fact, I happen to be something of a nut on the subject: From Metropolis to Blade Runner to Batman to Dark City to Star Wars 1: The Phantom Menace, I’m a sucker for a cool fantasy cityscape.
Yet even the City couldn’t save this Babe sequel for me. For one thing, unlike Hoggett Farm, which feels like a real place, the City feels like so much set design and special effects. Watching the pit bull chase Babe over bridges and around buildings, I was acutely aware of animals racing around a studio set; looking at the skyline, I admired the special effect but was never drawn into another world. But that’s only part of the problem. Not even the combined architectural vision of Syd Mead and Frank Lloyd Wright and George Lucas could save a movie that puts Mrs. Hoggett in a ballroom on a bungee cord in self-inflating clown pants.
The judges rating the pig’s performance might as well be grading the entire movie. Babe is a perfect 10.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.