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Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Babe: Pig in the CIty

After seeing Mad Max: Fury Road, which is still a welcome presence in my short-term memory, it occurred to me that director George Miller has, better than most, worked two sides of the cinematic spectrum: blood-soaked violence and heart-warming family pictures. He made Happy Feet, which I didn't much care for, but is also responsible for the two Babe films. I saw the first, but until today not the second, Babe: Pig in the City, and it's charming.

The gimmick, and I'm surprised it hasn't been tried again (to my knowledge) is using live animals to tell a story from their perspective. I imagine it's pretty difficult, given that this film, like Babe, uses 799 different critters. But it sure amps the "aw, cute" meter, starting with the little porker who plays the lead.

The film picks up immediately after the first, with Farmer Hoggett (James Cromwell) returning with his victorious sheep-pig, who won the herding contest. But the adventurous Babe gets Cromwell hurt in an accident, and the result is a looming foreclosure on the farm. Mrs. Hogget (Magda Szubanski) takes Babe on an airplane ride to the big city to make a connection to a state fair for an appearance fee, but do to circumstances, they are stranded in that same city.

Szubanski and Babe end up in a hotel secretly catering to animals, especially an old clown (Mickey Rooney) and his trained apes, which include a family of chimps and a wise old orangutan. Adventures ensue, including a perilous chase involving Babe and a pit bull terrier, and capture by animal control.

The film was unsuccessful at the box office, but has its admirers, including Gene Siskel, who named it the best film of 1998. I wouldn't go that far, and since I haven't seen the original Babe in twenty years I can't say if it's better, but I liked it a great deal. The underlying assumption--that animals are just as valuable lives as people--resonates with me. I also loved the basic appeal of animals, though I must say I'm fundamentally against using animals for entertainment purposes. I can only hope they were treated well.

The scene stealer is the orangutan, always nattily attired in a green waistcoat. As it seems with all movies about apes, the orangutan is the smart one, as his first lines to the chimps are, "You drooling imbeciles." This particularly ape has the greatest expression his face. It's a bit like the Kuleshov effect--you see what you want to see, but it's great nonetheless.

As for human actors, while Cromwell did the heavy lifting in Babe, it's Szubanski who gives her all in this one, including several pratfalls and the "anything for that pig" attitude. She teams with Mary Stein, as the Olive Oyl-like proprietress of the hotel, to save the animals, so with Szubanski's compact, rotund figure, they make quite a duo.

Miller couldn't resist, and I don't blame him, for having Cromwell utter the last line: "That'll do, pig. That'll do."

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