If Brecht had ever written a kiddie movie, it might have come out something like Chris Noonan's Babe. Co-adapted by its producer, George Miller, from a book by Dick King-Smith, the 1995 Australian film about a runty but purehearted little pig who takes it into his head to work herding sheep, thus inverting the accepted social hierarchy of a farm, is a crackpot masterpiece, a mixture of bucolic charm and subversive wit in which everything clicks. The film retains an unpretentious sense of silliness, yet it genuinely and powerfully engages our emotions--it somehow makes us take it seriously.
I'd be the first to grant that Babe is one of the greatest children's movies ever made, so it pains me to report that the sequel, Babe: Pig in the City, is a disaster; a busy, self-conscious mess in which almost nothing clicks. In many ways it's quite brilliant, yet the brilliance is mechanical and frenetic, with no core of feeling and no real point; it fails to involve us emotionally at all.
The first line of the narration--exquisitely spoken, as in the first film, by Roscoe Lee Browne--proves sadly prophetic: "The first test of a hero is surviving his fame." Babe and Farmer Hoggett (James Cromwell) return from the sheepdog contest in which, at the end of the first film, they won top honors--the pig's herding technique is simply to ask the sheep courteously if they would mind very much moving. Shortly thereafter, Hoggett is injured and unable to work, so his wife Esme (Magda Szubanski) is obliged to take Babe to the city to make a personal appearance, the fee from which will stave off foreclosure on the farm.
The metropolis in question, as it turns out, isn't any particular city but simply "The City," the urban Other as imagined by a generous, but still intimidated, rural mindset. This notion allows Miller, who took over directing duties on this film, some clever visual jokes: The skyline includes unmistakable features of New York, L.A., San Francisco, Paris, Sydney, and Rio, among other towns. The street on which Mrs. Hoggett and Babe--with a glee club of mice as stowaways--find a place to stay is on a Venetian canal.
Their lodgings are in a lodge-like hotel run by a gaunt, nervous landlady (the amusing Mary Stein) with a furtive soft spot for animals. Her other boarders include a troupe of down-on-their-luck performing apes; a roomful of cats who, for some reason, sing like a choir; and a trio of dogs, one of whom, Flealick, has wheels for hindquarters. As always, the well-intentioned Babe gets himself and others into trouble, which he then faces courageously.
Like Orwell's Animal Farm (though, frankly, with more subtlety), Babe confronted us with the exploitative nature of farming and animal husbandry, and then forced us to apply this concept to human society. It used Man's Inhumanity to Animal as, first, a legitimate theme in its own right and, second, as a metaphor for Man's Inhumanity to Man.
Presumably, what Miller had in mind for Pig in the City was to do for the urban jungle what the first film had done down on the farm. And since the Hoggett Farm was such a colorful cartoon--sort of a deadpan Aussie Dawgpatch--Miller probably felt that The City that Babe would visit should have the same bright, wacky quality.
But the cheery, Epcot Center-like design of Pig in the City's settings leads the film into trouble. It's never dark or threatening or sinister. The animals that Babe meets are lovable mugs in the Damon Runyon mold, and even on that sentimental level, they never become vivid. Even the absurdly low-flying planes that pass over the hotel make only a pleasing swish; it's a lovely image, but it's nothing more than a lovely image--there's nothing dramatic about it.
The static hotel setting is an even worse mistake. If Babe was going to go to The City, he belonged on its streets, exploring, encountering different characters and episodes, finding downtown equivalents for the injustices and bigotries he questioned on the farm. Instead, the plot's major crisis--a suspicious, animal-hating neighbor lady drops a dime on the hotel with Animal Control--seems a trumped-up device. It seems, put simply, like the stuff of conventional kids' movies. So does the action, which is almost wall-to-wall slapstick, culminating in an interminable shtickfest in a swanky hotel ballroom.
There can be little doubt that Miller, best known for the three Mad Max films, is one of the finest genre directors of the last two decades--he also directed the flawed but imaginative Witches of Eastwick, the hilarious "airplane" segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie, and the superb Lorenzo's Oil. He brings some magical sequences to Pig in the City, as well. After the plucky Flealick (nicely voiced by Adam Goldberg) is struck down while chasing a truck, we see his near-death experience, in which he scampers about, free of his leg braces, chasing butterflies through canine elysian fields. And there's a beautiful image of Babe's duck friend Ferdinand riding in the beak-pouch of a migrating pelican.
Actually, with the exception of the scenes that show a ghastly pair of fake baby chimps, I'd be hard-pressed to find a single shot in Pig in the City that isn't excellent, in terms of formal composition. The film is plainly the work of a master stylist. But style is no replacement for soul, and soul--which Miller's best work has--is absent here.
This may be, in part, because James Cromwell appears here only for a few minutes at the beginning and a few seconds at the end. Cromwell's almost wordless performance as Farmer Hoggett in the first film was of Beckettesque purity, yet without Beckett's pessimism. Nothing in Pig in the City--or, to be fair, in very many other films--has the simple beauty of Hoggett lifting Babe's spirits by singing "If I Had Words" and then dancing a lightfooted jig.
Mickey Rooney has a brief, jarring role in Pig in the City as Uncle Fugly, the keeper of the chimp troupe, but he isn't around enough to make an impression. The star human part here is Esme, but the spherical Australian TV comic Szubanski has been poorly served by her director. She was lovable in the first Babe, but her lovability was complex and ambivalent--like the rest of the tenderness in the first film, it had a vain, dangerous edge. Esme was formidable; after all, she was the one who noted that "pork is a nice sweet meat." Here the camera seems to patronize her, perhaps even mock her as a funny little fat lady, and the power of her presence is diminished. The same goes for every other aspect of this regrettable film.