Saturday, November 07, 2009

The Movie Moment Redux: Babe: Pig in the City (1998, George Miller)

(Originally posted on 3 May 2007 at The Screengrab. Reprinted with permission.)

One of the biggest surprises to come out of Hollywood in the 1990s was Babe. While this film has become something of a family classic, it was originally met with some skepticism when it was released in 1995. I admit that I was one of those skeptics, and not without good reason — having been subjected earlier that year to the putrid Gordy, which I watched while sitting for my neighbor’s little kids, I was not exactly thrilled about the idea of another movie starring a talking pig. But like most people who saw it, I was won over by Babe, and when the sequel was released three years later, I didn’t underestimate it like I had the original.

The biggest improvement between the two films was the director. While Babe was helmed by feature-film neophyte Chris Noonan, Pig in the City was directed by George Miller, who had produced the original film. At the time, Miller was best known for his distinctly adult-themed movies, including the postapocalytic Mad Max trilogy. He also directed 1992’s Lorenzo’s Oil, which like Pig in the City is a marvel of its kind, substituting for the mawkishness that’s typical of its genre a real tough-minded intelligence. In addition, Miller is a whiz with special effects, and the animal creations of Pig in the City exceed those of the original. Whereas Babe’s achievement was placing convincing — and interesting — talking animal characters in the world of the farm, the sequel both expands the cast of characters and places them in a teeming metropolis that’s not especially animal-friendly.

But the greatest achievement of the Babe films has always been how central the animal characters are to the story. In Babe, Arthur and Esme Hoggett dominate the farm, but the animals live their lives and interact independent of their human masters (to wit: James Cromwell plays the central human role in the original but got a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his efforts). In the sequel, the human characters are almost peripheral to the action, and there’s a nice irony in the turnabout that Esme Hoggett becomes comic relief compared to the animals. Like his predecessor, Miller wisely concentrates on the animals, and in most shots he keeps the camera close to the ground, roughly at the eye level of his porcine protagonist. The city is welcoming for a human, but more forbidding for a smaller creature like a pig, and seeing Babe’s trials and tribulations only from the level of human eyes would only diminish them.

Through a series of events too charmingly convoluted to describe here, Babe and Esme wind up in a cavernous hotel that caters to animals. While staying there, Babe meets a vast array of new animals, some friendly, some not (the primates are especially hostile, constantly referring to Babe with backhanded pet names like “porkpie”). Esme is soon separated from Babe following a bizarre misadventure, and Babe finds himself alone with only his new friends- and eventually, the late-coming Ferdinand the Duck- to protect him in the city.

Late in the film, a nosy neighbor reports the hotel to the animal control center, and most of the animals are carted away. Left behind are Babe, Ferdinand, and their new friends Easy, a monkey, and Flealick. Flealick is one of the most endearing of the film’s new characters, a chatty dog who has lost the use of his hind legs and has to use a small cart to walk himself around. Despite his handicap, Flealick is the first of the remaining animals to chase the animal control trucks, and eventually he manages to grab onto the truck using his teeth and get pulled along. But eventually he gets thrown off when the truck takes a sharp turn, which sends him crashing to the side the road, his cart flipped over. As he lies on the pavement twitching and gasping, the camera pushes in on one of his cartwheels slowly spinning in the air, and the film fades to black.

We next fade in on a lush, green meadow. The first thing we see is Flealick’s cart, lying there as it was in the last shot, only without its owner. The camera then pans upward to reveal a patch of brightly colored flowers, then it continues until we see Flealick, bounding around in the grass. He jumps around, chasing butterflies, not a care in the world. The shot continues for several seconds until we hear Babe’s voice, first quietly then gradually louder, saying, “Flealick? Flealick?” Finally, the film cuts back to Flealick in the road, with his friends finally having caught up with him.

So it was all a dream — of course it was. Scenes like this have been around for years, in all sorts of movies. But rarely have I ever seen it done so well as it is here, and the fact that it’s in a movie about talking animals makes it sort of miraculous. At the same time, the fact that Miller plays it absolutely seriously is typical of the approach of the Babe films. Rather than nudging the audience in the ribs as if to say, “Hey, it’s the death dream scene, only with a dog!” Miller's tone is serious, clearly going for pathos. And the sheer simplicity of the dream sequence makes it work — Flealick only aspires to have the kind of perfect day other dogs dream about, playing in the sun, without his bad legs to hold him back.

Babe: Pig in the City was criticized at the time of its release for being “too dark for kids.” Many of the naysayers points to scenes like this one in their criticism of the film. However, I think that such scenes are what set it apart from innocuous kiddie fare. From the Brothers Grimm to E.T., there is a long tradition of children’s tales with scary elements. We know everything will turn out in the end, but the road to happily ever after can be difficult and dangerous. Likewise, death is something all children must learn about sooner or later (my first exposure came when Mr. Hooper on Sesame Street passed away). Isn’t it more educational — and less scarring — for children to learn about death from a movie they watch with their parents than from the sudden death of a beloved relative or friend?

What makes the characters in Babe: Pig in the City appealing is that, while they talk like humans, they still think mostly like animals. The only difference is that they’ve been blessed with a small measure of self-awareness, not enough to turn them into furry, four-legged comedians, but just enough to aspire to be the best animal they can possibly be. And really, isn’t that all most humans can hope for from themselves?

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