The New Cult Canon: Babe: Pig In The City

The New Cult Canon: Babe: Pig In The City

"It's a dog-eat-dog world, and there aren't enough dogs to go around."

Would a sentiment like that ever be uttered in a children's film today? It's only been a decade since Babe: Pig In The City—George Miller's glorious fiasco of a sequel to the sleeper hit Babe—was shuffled in and out of theaters, but it feels like a lifetime ago. We're now in the age of cute anthropomorphized animals, not of the Babe variety, but of the kind voiced by wisecracking comedians bringing their G material. And these films have been scrubbed of any darkness and shadow, as if the Barney-addled children of today need to be shielded from anything remotely scary or imposing. Can you imagine Pinocchio being released today? Or The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr. T? Even The Wizard Of Oz?

Take Barnyard, an offensively inoffensive animated comedy released a couple of years ago. Most people, if they have any memory of that movie at all, recall that the male cows on its untended farm full of "party animals" have udders. Now, I'm actually willing to forgive the bull udders as some sort of bizarre, whimsical, Gary Larson-esque touch. Here's what I found unforgivable in Barnyard: These udder-bulls produce nothing; they die and they're buried in the fucking ground. No porterhouse steaks. No rump roast. No Grade-Z ground beef for school lunches. To me, it's unseemly for a film to deny that farms produce the things we eat; part of growing up a meat-eater is acknowledging that a cow (not unlike the one voiced by King Of Queens funnyman Kevin James) was hacked up into that Happy Meal you picked up on the way home from the theater.

Though still a much gentler, lighter film than its sequel, Babe opens by dispelling any such illusions. Were it not for divine chance (and his general runty-ness), our hero might have joined the sows herded onto a meat truck, which to the naïve eyes of Babe and other pen-dwellers, looks like a ticket to paradise. As far as they know, the pigs selected to leave the pen are so happy with their new home that none of them ever come back. From the first scene, the film is upfront about the fact that bacon, ham, and pork chops come from the same "wonderful, magical animal," as Homer Simpson once put it. And though Babe goes on to tell the story of a pig rescued from delicious destiny through his unlikely gifts as a sheepdog, it doesn't lie to kids about where he'd otherwise end up.

As its title makes clear, Babe: Pig In The City leaves the farm for the more uncertain perils of a sprawling metropolis. Stepping behind the camera after co-writing (with director Chris Noonan) and producing Babe, Miller sacrifices none of the hyperkinetic style he brought to the three Mad Max movies and the underrated Lorenzo's Oil, which made something operatic out of disease-of-the-week material. Seen through the eyes of his loveable, often Damon Runyon-esque animals, Miller's urban landscape is an overwhelming, frightening, chaotic, and sometimes cruel place, and the film makes no attempt to soften it up for the younger set. Off the farm, these creatures are as lost as the wayward boys sent to "Pleasure Island" in Pinocchio, though Miller doesn't manage anything quite as chilling as a curse that transforms young hoodlums into donkeys. (Though Mickey Rooney as a clown, which I'll discuss in a bit, comes awfully close.)

Before getting into the manic, dystopian elements that have given Pig In The City cult status, it should be said that the sprawling Everycity Miller and his technical wizards have created is extraordinarily beautiful. Seen from afar, it's a flourishing amalgam of the world's major city, squeezing in landmarks from the Statue Of Liberty to the Eiffel Tower to the Golden Gate Bridge to the Sydney Opera House in Miller's native Australia. The streets have their dark corners, to be sure, but they're also lined with cobblestone pathways and Venetian canals that sparkle with blue-green water. Some critics dismissed the film as irredeemably ugly, but in this clip, Babe's first look at the city provides jaw-dropping evidence to the contrary:

Such moments are parsed out pretty stingily, however, as Babe and his masters have to overcome all sorts of unfortunate setbacks. Fresh off their sheep-dogging triumph, Babe and the beloved Farmer Hoggett (James Cromwell) return to a hero's welcome, but back at the farm, things go haywire in a hurry. In the first of many inspired, elaborate Rube Goldberg setpieces that occur throughout the film, Babe tries to help Farmer Hoggett fix the water pump, but winds up sending his master careening down the well. With Farmer Hoggett horribly injured and Mrs. Hoggett (Magda Szubanski) overwhelmed by the task of tending to her ailing husband and the farm, it isn't long before men in suits come to threaten foreclosure. So as a last-ditch effort, Mrs. Hoggett decides to capitalize on Babe's sheepherding celebrity by accepting a lucrative offer for the pig to appear at a mega-fair in the big city.

They barely make it past the airport. A drug-sniffing beagle, eager to make the pig's acquaintance in baggage holding, brags about all the rewards he gets for barking next to suitcases. He demonstrates this by barking on top of Babe's crate, leading authorities to seize the pig and interrogate poor Mrs. Hoggett as a drug runner. After subjecting Mrs. Hoggett to certain "procedures"—a word the narrator emphasizes to suggestive effect—the authorities let them go, but not in time for them to make the fair. Unable to get a flight back home for a couple of days, they venture out into a hostile city, finally landing at a hotel that houses animals in secret.

Moments after they arrive there, Babe and Mrs. Hoggett are separated, and they don't see each other until the mad climax, when she tries to bungee him away from his captors. And though Miller follows the apple-cheeked matron's horrifying odyssey—in which she searches for the pig in some hellish Hollywood back lot and ends up getting arrested with a bucket of glue on her head—he mostly sticks with Babe, and the orphaned urban animal kingdom that eventually rallies around him. With them, Miller offers the children in the audience a scary fantasy: How would they get along in the big city without adults around? How would they feed themselves? What's the pecking order? Who would tell them what to do?

Babe: Pig In The City doesn't turn into a kid-friendly Lord Of The Flies or anything, but it does tap into children's primal fears of getting separated from their parents, or worse still, being controlled by adults who don't have their best interests in mind. Which brings us to Mickey Rooney, who puts in a brief but scarring appearance as a clown (with what appears to be a vomit-encrusted mouth) who abducts Babe and makes him a part of his act. Appearing at children's events under the name "The Fabulous Flooms And Their Amazing Apes," Rooney brings Babe into a comic routine that also involves a family of chimpanzees and an avuncular orangutan. When Babe accidentally disrupts Rooney in the middle of his cannonball bit, the result is the stuff of impeccably choreographed nightmares:

It never occurred to me that sequences like the one above—and the others like it in Babe: Pig In The City—cross the line of good taste or are somehow too disturbing for children, perhaps because I believe that kids are made of sterner stuff. After all, many generations have survived the Brothers Grimm, anthologists of the darkest and most enduring fairy tales, so surely today's can survive a film that looks tame by comparison. Besides, whenever Pig In The City seems unremittingly bleak, there's always Babe himself, the sweet-natured, peace-loving pig who can move sheep and other animals through gentle persuasion. Placed in a hostile environment, Babe succeeds as a leader by turning the other cheek: Whether it's with the apes, who have no qualms about roping him into Rooney's act (one of them, voiced by Steven Wright, has my favorite line in the film: "We're in a negotiation with this naked pink individual"), or the savage bull terrier who thinks he has "an official obligation to be malicious." At the end of a bravura chase scene involving the bull terrier, Babe sees his life flash before his eyes and suddenly decides to stick to principle. Here's that moment, rendered in a series of flashcuts that reminded me a little of Don't Look Now (which, coincidentally, also featured Venetian canals):

Babe's heroic act has such a transformative effect on the other animals that the tone of the film shifts to the positive. "Maybe dogs and cats should, you know, be nicer to each other," he suggests, and from then on, the city doesn't seem so cruel. Yes, the film is still hyperkinetic, with a couple of action sequences that play like Miller's homage to his own The Road Warrior. And yes, it closes with a bungee-jumping finale that's so bizarre and surreal that even I have trouble defending it. But Pig In The City is ultimately as assuring as Babe and other children's films are supposed to be: It's about making friends, sharing, and getting into mischief and adventures. It just takes a different route in getting there, one that's currently been sealed off for our kids' protection.

Coming up:

Next week: They Live

Cult On The Cheap Month

April 3: Clerks

April 10: Primer

April 17: Pi (replacing El Mariachi, which simply doesn't interest me)