Movie Review: Babe: Pig in the CityBy Vladimir V. Zelevinsky
Directed by George Miller
Written by George Miller, Judy Morris, Mark Lamprell
With Magda Szubanski, James Cromwell, Mary Stein, Mickey Rooney, and the voices of Elizabeth Daily, Danny Mann, Glenne Headly, Steven Wright, James Cosmo
Here's a pop quiz for you: You make a modestly budgeted kids' movie about a talking pig, release it with very little fanfare in the dog days of late summer '95, and it ends up being a major financial and critical success, is nominated for seven Oscars, including best picture, wins the one for best visual effects, and is named the best picture of the year by the National Society of Film Critics. What do you do? Well, you do what Universal Pictures did and green light a sequel. But you should probably, unlike Universal, rehire Chris Noonan, the Oscar-nominated director/co-writer of the original Babe, instead of handing the reins over to the George Miller, who made the Mad Max trilogy. Oops.
Miller (who was actually involved with the original as a co-writer/producer) creates a much different tone in Babe:Pig in the CIty, taking it far from Noonan's gentle comedy/drama. This movie is, to put is succinctly, weird.
The story starts with Farmer Hogget (James Cromwell, Oscar nominee from the original who cameos here) suffering a freak accident. This results in the farm being sold off, which results in Babe and Hogget's wife (Magda Szubanski) travelling to a major farm fair to raise money. This results in them getting detained, strip-searched (don't ask), missing their flight, getting lost, and moving into a strange animal-infested hotel in the middle of the foreboding metropolis. And then things get worse.
For much of the film Miller uses a falling-dominoes style, where events pile up until everything's a mess. Farmer Hogget's injury happens in one such sequence; there's another incident with Mrs. Hogget which involves several body-builders, a bunch of girls on rollerblades, a bucket of water, a housepainter, and a policeman on a bike. These sequences are kind of fun, but nothing more, largely because they are clumsily shot and edited. The inspiration here is, of course, both Rube Goldberg and the famous French fantasy film The City of Lost Children, which did the same thing, only much better.
There's another important parallel between these tales of two "cities", and that's the ambiance, which is decidedly dark. There are enough frightening scenes to make this ostensibly family-oriented film less than suitable for the kids, and plenty of sad scenes to make it anything but cheery holiday entertainment. There's the pathetic clown (Mickey Rooney), a dog who almost drowns, and the extended animal control sequence which is downright depressing.
But there are a good deal of excellent dark films, and even in Pig in the City it largely works, creating a spookily alluring picture of two innocents getting lost in a foreboding metropolis that comes very close to swallowing them whole. The domineering subtext of the circus as a metaphor for life is apt; it also invokes the ghost of Fellini (maybe the last influence one would expect in a big budget fantasy, although to be fair, Fellini did consider directing the remake of King Kong), and it almost makes at least some kind of sense during the wildly misconceived action climax.
But for the all startling visual inventiveness that Miller brings to this film (Pig in the City is consistently an eye-full, brimming with literally dozens of impeccably trained live animals, lifelike animatronic animals, and flawlessly computer-generated ones), it's chiefly a metaphor. Babe was not a metaphor; it was a story, and the animals there were simply animals. Animals here act as if they were humans, and basically play humans.
The allegories in Pig in the City are certainly clever, but there are so many of them that they almost crowd the title character out of the picture. Babe doesn't have much to do, but his two main actions - saving a drowning dog and a goldfish - are utterly amazing. An engaging character, I guess, always wins over a clever allegory.