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Review: 'Babe: Pig in the City' as tasty as the first

Web posted on: Tuesday, December 01, 1998 1:43:25 PM EST

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- It's not exactly a secret, but it surprises me how little has been made of the fact that the man behind what could now accurately be called the "Babe" phenomenon, Australian film maker George Miller, is the writer and director of all three "Mad Max" movies.

Think about it. Miller -- who's a trained physician, too, in case his movie work isn't far-ranging enough for you -- moves from a series of films comprised mostly of punk rock-tinged, post-apocalyptic car chases to a couple of talking pig morality tales. Or "tails," if you want me to be Joel Siegel.

Theatrical preview for "Babe: Pig in the City"

Windows Media: 28k or 56k
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What gets me about "Babe: Pig in the City," though, is that (like its sister film) making people go "awwwww" isn't really what the game is about. Sure, this stuff is cute. If that's what you're looking for, God bless you; I couldn't think of a better place for you to park for a couple of hours. But there's a great deal more than that going on in these movies.

Clear display of movie mastery

Just as he does in the Mad Max series (and in his memorably claustrophobic, airplane-bound segment of "The Twilight Zone" movie), Miller displays a visual and technical mastery that's very nearly the equal of Steven Spielberg's. His camera picks up and moves when it's right to move, and locks itself down when character development will accomplish more than flinging the audience into another kinetic workout. Honestly, there's an orangutan in "Babe: Pig in the City" named Thelonious who's more emotionally complex than anybody in the recent Jerry Bruckheimer snow job, "Enemy of the State."

That's not such a difficult thing to accomplish when you're dealing with human actors, I'll grant you, but try pulling off this kind of humanity with a pig, a duck, some pelicans, a bunch of chimps, several dogs, and a room full of singing kitty cats. It's pretty mind-boggling that Miller gets enough usable footage to actually cut a story together, let alone make grown men and women cry like babies over the city-bound misadventures of a sheepdogging pig.

"Pig in the City" is far more ambitious (and a lot darker) than the first film, but there's still an extremely tender heart beating beneath all the commotion. It sometimes gets caught up in its own busy-ness and you have to sit tight until things calm down, but this is a first-rate children's film that's just as rewarding for adults as it is for the little ones. It's funny, sweet, and often incredibly moving.

Still about the animals

At first, the story looks like it's going to focus more on the human characters than last time around, but it turns out that about 80 percent of the movie consists wholly of chatty animals. Things pick up where they left off three years ago, with Babe being hailed as a hero for winning the sheep-herding contest.

But, as the winningly erudite narration by Roscoe Lee Browne informs us, things don't always go so well just because everyone's calling you a hero. Babe himself (voiced this time by actress E.G. Daily instead of Christine Cavanaugh, but the change is hardly noticeable) sets the plot in motion by accidentally dropping a winch on top of Farmer Hoggett's head while he's working in a well.

James Cromwell, who plays Hoggett, is laid up in bed, covered in plaster casts, so he's barely around after that. This quickly forces his hefty, jolly wife, played by Australian comedian Magda Szubanski, to come up with a plan to keep the farm afloat.

In desperation, she opts to take her famous sheep-pig to the city to display him in a state fair. Everything falls apart when she gets there (she's accused of smuggling drugs by airport narcotics agents!) so she and Babe are soon holed up in a hotel that's run by a woman who thinks animals should be allowed to rent rooms just like people do. What a stroke of luck!

There's an old clown (played briefly and silently by Mickey Rooney, by now more frightening to little kids than any kind of chimp) who lives in the hotel with his butler orangutan (the previously cited Thelonious); Easy, a younger, Walkman-wearing monkey; and a somewhat sleazy married chimp couple (voiced hilariously, and often poignantly, by Steven Wright and Glenn Headley) who fall into amusingly non-simian Stanley and Stella Kowalski riffs.

The hotel also sports a dog named Flealick who pulls his paralyzed hind legs around on a wheeled cart, a prissy pink poodle who evokes Blanche DuBois, and a bunch of cats who can't be bothered with plot mechanics because they're too busy singing chorales. Ferdinand the duck is also back for another go, as are those cute (awwww) singing mice. (This time, they even cover an Elvis tune. And they're not bad, either.)

Animals left to fend for themselves

A few twists of the story later, and this little community of animals is left alone in the hotel with no humans in sight. They all have their own problems and idiosyncrasies to occupy them, but they're forced to pull together in order to survive.

The interplay among the various animals is pretty astonishing. You quickly lose any sense that you're watching a game of smoke and mirrors -- those dogs and kitties are really talking to each other! Plus, and I want to stress the comic power of this, you get monkeys wearing people clothes. I've actually written about this before, but I have a long history of busting a gut over chimps who act like people, probably because I have a long history of busting a gut over people who act like chimps. You get tons of that in "Babe: Pig in the City," but there's more than humor involved.

Thelonious is the broken soul of the film (I understand how ridiculous that sounds), a forlorn, slow-moving character who seems to be pining for his more dignified past. There were several instances when I found myself thinking, "Gee, what's up with poor Thelonious?" before I realized that he's just a plain old monkey making sad faces.

At one point, the animals have been captured (in a disturbing scene that takes too long to finish), stripped of their clothes, and locked up in cages. When Babe (who's made friends with a bruiser of a dog) releases them, Thelonious quietly informs the other animals that he's "not dressed" and proceeds to methodically slip on his pants and suspenders as danger quickly approaches. It's a wonderfully sad, complex moment given the standards of most children's movies, but there's another interlude that manages to top it.

Flealick, that dog with the training wheels, is tossed to the side of the road after grabbing onto a moving truck, and, for about 10 seconds, we suddenly see what he's dreaming as he lies there in a twitching heap. In the dream, he's running around minus the wheels, romping over lush, green hills beneath a crystal blue sky. He repeatedly leaps in the air, nipping at some butterflies that hover above his head. Then, just as suddenly as he entered this glimpse of heaven, he's back in reality, with his wheels firmly in place.

It's just about the most affecting single moment that I've seen in a movie this year, and is a perfect capsule example of why the "Babe" films work so well. The low man (or dog) on the totem pole unexpectedly gets his moment of dignity, simple as that. It's such a big-hearted gesture it verges on old fashioned, which says a lot about how twisted and double-barreled our "entertainment" has gotten to be in the past 20 years.

I laughed; I cried; I swore off pork yet again. Bring on the next one, but fast.

"Babe: Pig in the City" may very well upset small children. Some of the scenes are surprisingly troubling, including one moment when a dog nearly drowns while the other animals turn away from him. Babe saves the day, though, just as he does throughout the film.

You know your kids better than I do. Explain to them that everything will work out in the end and they'll probably love it. Rated G. 96 minutes. (Take note of the brilliantly surrealistic city, which contains not only the Eiffel Tower, but the Sydney Opera House, the Statue of Liberty, the Hollywood sign, and the Golden Gate Bridge, among other landmarks.)

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