Babe – (1995)
Director: Chris Noonan
Starring: Christine Cavanaugh, Miriam Margolyes, James Cromwell, Hugo Weaving
Screenplay by: George Miller, Chris Noonan
The 90s were known for many things, not the least of all being the decade’s penchant for movies starring talking animals. The early decade simply had the animals “think-communicate”, kind of like telepathy (Milo and Otis, Homeward Bound, Look Who’s Talking Now). Babe was lucky enough to be release right when computer effects were just starting to be effectively realized, and yet not overbearingly so such that puppetry and animatronics were still being used. And, truth be told, if Babe, Jurassic Park, and Where the Wild Things Are are any indication, well, judicious use of animatronics plus judicious use of CGI is the perfect formula. Please take note, Mr. Cameron and Mr. Jackson.
NOSTALGIC LENS: Babe was a film that I remember loving, and even though I haven’t watched it in so long, I, for some reason, always stood up for it. I’m not sure why – lord knows there were plenty of lame and corny moments – singing mice, for instance – but yet, it was a sweet movie that seem to have always stuck with me, in some degree.
DOES IT HOLD UP: Babe is really a tricky movie to describe. I can only say this: Babe is, truly, a story. The characters are, truly, characters. Watching the film, no matter what happens, you’re always keenly aware that you’re watching a tale, a tale definitely derived from a children’s book. If I had to use one word, it would be endearing.
A lone, runt pig is taken from a slaughterhouse to be used as a “Guess The Weight” prize for a county fair. Farmer Arthur Hoggett wins the prize, the pig itself, and when it arrives on the farm, its loneliness catches the heart of sheepdog Fly, who takes care of it. There’s also a number of smaller stories and incidents, moments that seem like they could be pulled out from the film, but they, in oddly yet astute ways, drive the overall story, compelling Babe from a potential Christmas dinner into an amazing sheep herder.
Given the lack of Youtube videos out there (quality ones), I have to utilize screenshots, but I think that they point out one rather remarkable aspect: the cinematography. Andrew Lesnie brings a certain visual potency and poetry to many of the scenes, shots that are simultaneously amusing and powerful. They’re amusing in the sense that they divulge a weight on characters and moments that, at face value, are just goofy. But given the strength… no, better yet, given the film’s commitment to the story and the actors’ to the characters, they add to the ambiance of the film perfectly. It’s both silly and serious.
An interesting deep focus shot of Babe, Fly, Rex, and Farmer Hoggett after he runs away:
The hilarious evil glare over the Sheepdog committee condoning Hoggett and his “dog” named “Pig”:
The GOD light shone on Hoggett and Babe after winning it all:
It’s pretty funny, especially if you pay attention to the visuals. But, yet, it works.
“But, yet, it works” is essentially how viewers can swallow the lameness of some of the more sillier aspects. Of course, I mean the singing mice. (The high-pitched squeal singing voice will be, in a few years, used in a number of rap songs, and while I’m glad that’s over, I’d sure as hell would prefer that over the excessive vocoder use.) Part of why they work is because they’re rarely seen, and even when they’re present, they take up little screen time, enough not to become grating. It’s as if Noonan knew the supers (the inserts of the name of each “chapter”) would get too annoying, and they stop coming around the forty-minute mark. All the silliest moments are perfectly controlled; it’s as if Noonan wanted to emphasis the fact that, yes, the viewer is watching a story, and shouldn’t delve too much into it. And in case you do – BAM! You get a face full of singing mice. Deconstruct that shit.
The best aspect of the film are the human characters, hands down. Mrs. Hoggett (Magda Szubanski) steals the show as she exposits plot points so goofily, so energetically, it’s actually a treat to see her do it. Cromwell does grizzly-with-a-heart-of-gold so well. He always does, but he does it doubly so for this film. I love the oh-so-blunt line readings of the Hoggett’s children and grandchildren when they arrive, and the “pure evil” faces of the Sheepdog committee are gold. Hell, even the sheepdog crowd is great, with their overacted laughter transitioning to their overacted cheering. It’s so ridiculous, but amazingly pleasantly so.
Of course, the story is about Babe, and it’s enjoyable enough, if predictable. There’s a lot cute, humorous moments, as well as some surprisingly dark ones. And while all the characters having easy-to-see character arcs, they are still very worthwhile, especially when frustrated Kay finally warms up to the pig. It’s really nice stuff, very well handled.
And I know that Noonan didn’t want me to do this, but I couldn’t help but notice the not-so-subtly commentary of accepting stereotypical status quo mentalities, of pre-judging through racial (or, I guess, species) lenses. In the end, being nice, kind, and forward is all you need – although, I’m not sure what the “password” thing was all about. I assume it’s another one of Noonan’s and Miller’s ways to prevent me from reading too much into it.
IN A NUTSHELL: Babe’s emphasis on its story and characters weaves a truly heart-warming tale that’s very easy on the eyes, mind, and soul. And while that sounds like what the back of the DVD case would say, it’s true. It’s a throwback film to a time when the storytelling aspect of the story was king, and any insane, crazy concept could be told with expect skill. And, if IMDB is correct, this film was a ten-year labor of love for George Miller.
December 7th: All Dogs Go to Heaven
December 14th: Balto