BABE
Directed by Chris Noonan
Written by Noonan and George Miller
(based on Dick King-Smith's novel The Sheep-Pig)
Cinematography by Andrew Lesnie
Starring James Cromwell and the voices of Christine Cavanaugh, Miriam Margolyes, Danny Mann, Hugo Weaving, and Mariam Flynn.
Australia, 1995

GRADE: B+
Time comes when a critic's got to write something about the talking pig movie.

Babe has something of a fan club. The basic premise -- cute animal flick for kids -- is off-putting enough that some folks who fancy themselves adherents of "serious" pictures have dismissed it out of hand. Others (ahem!) simply skipped it in the theaters because they thought they had better things to spend eight bucks on. (While we waited for the thing to come out on video, the National Society of Film Critics voted it Best Picture, and the blamed thing got an Oscar nomination!)

Turns out the joke's on us, because Babe is a singular film, one with a sensibility and vision that, I'm sure, looks wondrous on the big screen. In terms of concept, it's like a magical yoking of Charlotte's Web to The Muppet Movie, with a slew of real animals, so-called "animatronic" creations, and computer animation all collaborating on a fairy tale about finding one's rightful place in a harsh world.

Babe is the name of the titular pig that a farmer wins at a carnival when he correctly guesses the piglet's weight. It seems for a time that Babe is doomed to become next year's prize ham, but his life is spared by the farmer once Babe stumbles across his true calling. The farmer's sheep, who are used to being bossed around by the aggressive sheepdog, are pleased to do Babe's bidding, since he treats them with respect, and the farmer is both flabbergasted and impressed. As he's finding himself, Babe must deal with a neurotic duck, a jealous sheepdog, and the farmer's hungry wife.

The execution of this story, based on a book by Dick King-Smith, could hardly be more charming. The proceedings are broken up into chapters, introduced by a Greek chorus of tiny mice who spend the movie singing and giggling. Children will be delighted, I'm sure, although I do worry that they me be subjected to a very palpable anxiety at the thought of Babe being cooked and eaten -- friends report that their children suffered quite a lot during certain scenes. (That in itself isn't so problematic -- kids have been sent into teary hysterics by kids' movies since Walt Disney first handed over that poisoned apple -- but be aware.)

I also had reservations at first about the resolution, in which Babe wins a sheep-herding competition by, um, well, by cheating. This seemed to send an uncomfortable message about how kids might best deal with their problems. But on a second viewing I realized that the real moral had to do with gaining the trust of others by treating them with kindness. If you treat others well, the lesson goes, they're likely to treat you the same way, and may even do you illicit favors.

A couple of caveats: the best scenes are near the beginning, before the movie gets bogged down in its own storyline. (In particular, a scene where the aforementioned duck sends Babe on a clandestine mission inside the farmer's house is spectacularly funny.) And while certainly inventive, some of the film's techniques, like the artificially animated mouth movements of some of the animals, are a little too bizarre to be wholly convincing. The world of Babe isn't a seamless one, but it's surely inviting and rewarding.


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