s is always a bit of a moment of profound ill-ease - them so like us, and yet so not. Watching primates wearing human clothing
invariably ups the mindfuck
quotient, and when you combine that with Oscar
-calibre special effects
placing spot-on human speech
and mouth movements in and on their soulful
mugs, I should hope you're sitting down.
The catchy tag for this 1998 sequel was "In the Heart of the City, a Pig with Heart." Aw, ain't that sweet. In order to maintain the bucolic carryover appeal from the original, the people in marketing omitted the second, and considerably franker, portion of the slogan, which would have gone along the lines of "...Nearly gets it torn out by a Pit Bull with Teeth."
So it's dark: in the first ten minutes the gruff (but dear!) Farmer Hoggett (James Cromwell) is incapacitated, nearly fatally, when Babe tries to "help" him install a new pump in the well; the men in grey suits (with "soulless eyes"!) come from the Bank to foreclose the farm (as our hero sets off a mob of sheep bleating "saaaa-aaave the faaa-aarm, Babe!" - no pressure here!); and a gaunt Babe is x-rayed while Esme Hoggett (Magda Szubanski), the farmer's desperate wife, is subjected to a cavity search at the airport under suspicion of narcotics smuggling. And perhaps worst of all, at the victory celebration of the prior film's sheep-herding triumph a sky-written congratulating "CHAMP" is disconcertingly momentarily read as "HAM". (I know it gave me shivers.)
Reviews of this movie fell all over the map*, largely as a result of the disparity between "the further adventures of quaint country livin'" movie the viewers expected and the "harrowing struggle with and ultimate transcending of all the evils of industrialized civilization" film they were treated to - parents might have been more able to leave the theatre appreciating its more adult themes if they hadn't unexpectedly had to explain to their children about near-death experiences, why it is all right for dogs and cats (but not little boys and girls) to call each other "pussy" and "butt-sniffer", and perhaps over all - what it meant when the plaintive big-eyed puppy whimpered "my human tied me in a bag and throwed me in the water."
Yessir, this little gem was a far cry from your median kiddie flick, not talking down to them (with section headings like "Chaos theory"), recalled in one review as the most subversive children's movie in recent memory (second perhaps only to The Iron Giant), driving home some essential lessons about life in the modern age to the preadolescent observer:
- members of the local constabulary do not take kindly to pig-calls, however sincerely-intended;
- people of all stripes and colours own firearms, the only common thread among them being that they're all nucking futters;
- there is no such thing as a free lunch;
- attachment leads to suffering. In particular that
- the pursuit of property,
- a fondness for popular culture, and
- a false sense of dignity and the trappings of fashion will all jeopardise you or lead to your downfall;
- don't believe the man who claims that no one will get hurt until he puts down his weapon - what he means is that he doesn't intend to allow you to hurt him;
- neither communism nor self-interest in their pure forms serve as a useful basis for a society, but primitive agrarian socialism is totally where it's at;
- standing up for others is a poor personal policy, for which you may suffer again and again, but in the long run it is the only valid one.
Something that should be noted is that the film's title says "Pig in the
City", not "Pig in any old
City." Its shooting title was Babe in Metropolis
, but Kallipolis
might have been closer to the mark - this is truly the Platonic uber-city, of which all other cities are mere shadows. Production designer Roger Ford
was presented with the stiff task of combining and distilling into a single whole the biggest and gaudiest elements of Los Angeles, Moscow, New York, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, San Francisco, Sydney, and (yea, even those most cosmopolitan of world-class cities)
Toronto and Minneapolis - famous and prominent landmarks from all of which are visible in the unimaginable gestalt landscape set before Babe as our porcine
protagonist gazes out the window of the Flealands hotel
. Though much of the movie elapses inside the spacious and winding auspices of the hotel, every time a character ventures out-of-doors you're treated to a surreal cross between Venice, Amsterdam and Las Vegas, with an occasional Hong Kong-inspired jumbo jetliner roaring directly overhead.
Ferdinand the craven duck joins Babe and the chorus of farm mice from the original movie, but they're outdone by an entire choir of cats in the attic (watch the conductor's tail when they hit the high notes) and the varied musical score in general, continually threatening on the cusp of bursting into Camille Saint-Saens' Carnival of the Animals (but bizarrely never quite making it there - see the bottom spoiler for more of this delightfully infuriating un-resolution). While on the topic of music, I've got to mention that this movie was up for an Academy Award nomination for Best Song - a little ditty by Randy Newman (who was himself facing three separate nominations for different music in different movies that year) entitled "That'll Do", sung during the closing credits sequence by none less than Mr. Peter "Sledgehammer" Gabriel himself.
I could go on about the movie's plot, but really - this movie has already got so much going for it that any dramatic exposition would be entirely superfluous. Really, it's got it all - fires in the children's cancer ward (following a calamitous performance by depressing clown Fugly Floom - a mute Mickey Rooney, who is genuinely fugly here - and his trained Apes... including Steven Wright-voiced gutsy language-mangling chimp Bob Bopaluna), bizarre religious overtones, and it is only during the bungee-suspender inflated-pants banner-swinging showdown in the ballroom between the farmer's wife and the French chef that you recall that, hey - yeah! the George Miller who directed this was the same guy responsible for Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome! I was wondering why this all seemed so strangely resonant.
Over the course of the filming of this movie they used eight hundred and ninety-nine animals - an astounding feat in itself what with dozens of dogs and cats being coerced into well-behaved cooperation while sharing valuable camera time - and more astounding yet considering that a suitable home was located for each of the animals after filming was complete.
The MPAA assigned this movie a G rating, meaning that it is to be considered suitable for general viewing by people of all ages and temperaments. Not only do I agree wholeheartedly, but I am in fact on a personal campaign to have this fine piece of work seen by as many people as possible. Towards such ends I have procured for myself a copy of it on VHS and be warned: I know what to do with it. If you have the misfortune to be around me for long enough, I will try my darndest to expose you to it, serially given the opportunity. Just don't say you weren't prepared.
The pyramid of champagne glasses does not collapse. I hope I do not ruin the movie for anyone by revealing that here, but it is the one element of (restraint?) unresolved tension in the movie that left me steaming as I exited the theater. To have such an elaborate set piece... and not destroy it! The sheer audacity! How saucy!@ Why, I think I'll go watch it again.
* According to the late critic Gene Siskel, this was the best movie of 1998. The Christian Critic says "This country pig continues to exhibit more godly traits than most humans", and it really confused the folks at CAPalert, who noted that "While there was no programming in Babe: Pig in the City which was particularly invasive, the sum of all that was questionable might confuse wholesome behavioral development" - and a more glowing endorsement I cannot conceive of! Perhaps best of all, Steven D. Greydanus claimed (in an otherwise-damning piece) that if the first Babe was the Citizen Kane of talking-pig movies, this was the Touch of Evil.
Thank you for reading all the way to the end of this write-up.