Combustible Celluloid
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With: James Cromwell, Magda Szubanski, Mickey Rooney, Mary Stein, voices of E. G. Daily, Steven Wright, Glenne Headly
Written by: George Miller, Judy Morris, Mark Lamprell
Directed by: George Miller
MPAA Rating: G
Running Time: 97
Date: 11/24/1998

Babe: Pig in the City (1998)

4 Stars (out of 4)

That'll Do

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

By now, everyone knows about the little movie that could, Babe (1995). It opened soon after a misguided attempt by Disney at making a talking pig movie called Gordy, which flopped. Everyone scoffed at Babe. But, miracle of miracles, the word of mouth started trickling in. While the studios were telling people to go see Batman Forever and Die Hard with a Vengeance, people were telling each other to go see Babe. And people did. The little movie from Australia made a fortune, and went on to be nominated for lots of Oscars; Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, and winning Best Visual Effects, beating out the outer space adventure Apollo 13. Babe then lived a happy life on the video shelves of families everywhere.

People loved the little pig so much that they were skeptical when Universal announced a sequel for the Fall of 1998. Word got out of a huge budget in the range of $60 - $70 million (just a fraction of Titanic, but people forget easily). Then word got out that the sequel was "dark". Then word got out that Universal had fired the executive that had green-lighted the movie. Then Babe: Pig in the City committed the ultimate crime; it opened Thanksgiving weekend opposite an animated Disney movie, A Bug's Life.

Despite good reviews that came pouring in -- the most exuberant from Siskel & Ebert, Jonathan Rosenbaum in the Chicago Reader, and the San Francisco Guardian & Weekly -- the movie never had a chance. Yet, it's a masterpiece that belongs proudly alongside its predecessor and in the annals of cinema history. Therefore, Babe must be praised, and Babe: Pig in the City must be defended.

It seems a strange thing is happening now. The few people who have actually seen Babe: Pig in the City and liked it are so passionate about the movie that it's already developing a strong cult following. It will be interesting to see what happens to it in the coming years.

Babe: Pig in the City picks up as the little pig returns home from his triumph of winning the sheepdog contest. The narrator tells us that the first hazard for the returning hero is fame. Indeed, nothing is the same on the farm. Babe gets in the way of Farmer Hoggett as he tries to fix the well, and causes an accident that puts Hoggett in a wheelchair. The boss' wife attempts to take over the farmwork as well as the housework, but she soon falls behind, and the bank is poised to foreclose. She finds a letter from a state fair who will pay an entry fee for the privilege of showing Babe, the famous sheep-pig. So Mrs. Hoggett and Babe head out for the big city. As they leave, the sheep begin chanting, "save the farm, Babe, save the farm..."

Babe and Mrs. Hoggett get blindsided before they even leave the airport. Babe meets a drug dog who is glad to give Babe a demonstration of his talents. Then they find that most hotels in the city are not friendly to animals. Fortunately, they find one that is, run by a spindly landlady (Mary Stein). Many animals are residents at this particular hotel, including a dog named Flealick who is paralyzed from the waist down, and a pair of chimps (voices by Stephen Wright and Glenne Headly) who are owned by a circus clown (Mickey Rooney!). Babe and Mrs. Hoggett are soon separated. Mrs. Hoggett is arrested again, leaving Babe on his own.

But, as we know from the first film, Babe is a kind-hearted, resourceful pig. The city animals have never seen a pig before. One chimp calls him a "pinky whity baldy thingy". Babe is content to stay in his room and look at the city skyline (which includes the Golden Gate Bridge, the Empire State Building, the Hollywood sign, the Space Needle, and other miraculous images) until a monkey steals Mrs. Hoggett's suitcase, and Babe must fight for what's right. Soon, he becomes the center of attention, and is put in charge when the animals go on a food raid. Babe gets tricked into distracting the guard dog, a vicious bull terrier (voice by Stanley Ralph Ross), who chases Babe all over the garbage-filled streets. The terrier ends up tangled by his leash, hanging face-first off a bridge into the water. Babe swims out to his rescue, and earns a protector. The bull terrier gives Babe his spiked collar to wear.

Babe is treated as a Christ-like figure in this movie. He is here to teach us about compassion, kindness, and forgiveness, in the big city where he is needed the most. The bull terrier goes through a baptism with his head in the water, and comes out a better dog. The next scene has Babe and the dog doling out stolen jelly beans to the stray animals, with the dog telling each animal to "thank the pig". Babe even calls Flealick back from the dead at one point. But the movie is also in the great tradition of Dickens, discussing class values where they are most potent -- the city.

The rest of the movie has Babe trying to rescue his human, and the human trying to rescue the pig. There are many beautifully choreographed chase scenes and slapstick scenes that are directed as if there had never before been any movies. The director is George Miller, who is responsible for the Mad Max; trilogy, The Witches of Eastwick, and Lorenzo's Oil, all very good movies, but Babe: Pig in the City tops them all. Miller only wrote and produced the last Babe, which was probably good. The first Babe was more balanced. With this Babe, the effect is as if before we were enjoying the view out of a plane window, when all of a sudden a curtain pulled back, making the view much bigger and wider. We didn't know before what was possible.

I could go on and on talking about the endless treasures of this movie; the slightly twisted dialogue of the chimps, Mrs. Hoggett's bungee-cord scene reminiscent of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Ferdinand the duck traveling to the city to find Babe, etc. All I can do is to plead to you, don't let this movie get away from you. If any movie of the last 10 years can make you a better person, this and the original Babe are it. Watch them together as a double bill, and bounce off the clouds. These are major achievements that can no longer be merely compared with The Wizard of Oz. These are films to rank with Murnau's Sunrise, Hawks' Brining Up Baby, Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, Renoir's The Golden Coach, and other movies that capture the joy of cinema and the joy of life.

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