Pigs are intelligent animals. They may not be quite swift enough to realize that they often wind up as bacon and sausage on the breakfast table, but it’s been suggested that they may be even more trainable than dogs at following commands and performing tricks. The Australian screen-writing team of Chris Noonan (also director) and George Miller certainly convince us of this in their uplifting family film Babe, a tale about a common destiny shared by a laconic but kind-hearted old farmer, Arthur Hoggett (James Cromwell), and a spirited orphaned piglet that thinks he’s a sheep-dog.
Babe’s and Hoggett’s paths meet when Hoggett wins the animal by correctly guessing his weight at a county fair. The narrator (Roscoe Lee Browne) is quick to inform us that their meeting is not mere chance but is providential.
Hoggett may not say much, but he doesn’t need to, given Cromwell’s expressive body language. Not to mention that he’s surrounded by a fine cast of animal actors to do the talking for him, their speech brilliantly brought to life by a combination of mouth-moving animatronics technology and vocal virtuosi. In addition to Babe, whose voice is rendered in a tone of child-like pleading by Christine Cavanaugh, there’s an endearingly irksome duck named Ferdinand (Danny Mann); a duo of sheep-dogs, the motherly Fly (Miriam Margolyes) and her gruff breeding partner Rex (Hugo Weaving), a former champion sheep-dog (who initially doesn’t take kindly to Babe); an aged, haggard ewe with a chronic cough who aptly calls herself “Maa” (Miriam Flynn); Duchess, the Hoggetts’ malevolent cat who gets in more than a couple of scratches with Babe; and a host of other creatures that add extra spice to the film despite their brief appearances—ranging from a cantankerous rooster, to a trio of mischievous Blue-Moon-singing mice with high-pitched giggles, to a philosophical cow who jadedly remarks that we can’t “change the way things are.”
These bovine words of wisdom highlight a darker undercurrent in the film. As the duck Ferdinand (and later, the vindictive bad kitty) informs Babe, animals are generally eaten if they have no other purpose in life. Dogs and cats provide companionship; sheeps, wool. But what about ducks and pigs? Well naturally, they’re fattened up and eaten. Such, much to Ferdinand’s dismay, is the fate of Roseanna, a female duck acquaintance of his. So Ferdie decides that his purpose in life will be to become like a rooster and crow to wake everyone up in the morning. And when the Hoggetts get a new alarm clock, he intends to filch it, recruiting his new naive friend as an accomplice.
As for our little porcine hero, the mouth of Arthur’s wife Esmé (Magda Szubanski) is watering almost from the second Arthur arrives home with his prize. Esmé Hoggett is a comic delight, particularly when prattling on about all the wonderful treats she intends to harvest from the slaughtered pig: chitlins, bacon, liver. Adding to the humor is that Esmé looks rather like a porker herself, with her rotund face, ruddy complexion, and puggish nose.
Luckily for Babe, Hoggett is a man of vision and purpose. He first notices Babe’s knack for herding when the piglet separates a brood of hens into two separate colors: brown and white. He then begins training the young piggy to corral sheep in the hope of entering him in the upcoming sheep-dog trials. Although Arthur’s ultimate intentions are unbeknownst to his wife at this time, she begins to look on her husband’s behavior with more than a little consternation, thinking that this time he really has fallen off his rocker.
Esmé’s worry about her husband’s eccentricity illustrates what the film is primarily about: Hoggett has the courage and original thinking to flout conventions even though he knows he will temporarily be the laughing stock of not only his family and neighbors but also the sheep-dog association, with which he has a “long and honorable relationship.” What’s remarkable about Hoggett’s character is that he never seems to doubt that his harebrained plans will ultimately succeed. In the narrator’s words, Hoggett recognizes that “little ideas that tickle and nag should never be ignored, because in them lie the seeds of destiny.”
It helps that Babe’s innocence and affability gradually earn him the support of the entire barnyard. His staunchest supporter is Fly, who has taken him under her wing after her pups were sold and never loses faith in him for a second. Even Rex, who had viciously attacked Fly for “putting ideas” into the pig’s head, comes around, his entreaty of the sheep becoming the decisive factor in the film’s outcome. Only a “heart of gold” (Maa’s epithet for Babe) could make “wolves” and sheep forget their differences.
After watching this film, you really have to wonder about whether animals are smarter, or at least less hidebound, than people. What I find truly remarkable about Babe is that it makes its absurd premise and plot seem so plausible without overindulging in sentimentality. It’s a tribute, in particular, to Cromwell’s dead-serious, almost dour, demeanor as Hoggett. As for the animals, for shame if this film doesn’t convince you that they can formulate complex thoughts!
Sadly, I think that is a real shame these days, for I doubt many in the present generation of youngsters have the capacity to see the imagination of films like this. Just as they’d rather read mindless drivel like Twilight and Harry Potter than open their callow minds to the complexities of Charlotte’s Web or The Secret Garden, they’d rather watch gaudy Pixar animation than learn to discern subtleties of character, language, and plot in a film like Babe. Of course, it’s not really their fault that junk is constantly being dangled beneath their noses. I do at least hope that some parents, for whom the film may have greater appeal, will keep this wonderful classic alive in their households for years to come.
Joe’s Grade: A