Babe: Pig in the City (1998)

D: George Miller
S: Magda Szubanski, James Cromwell

Stylish fantasy drama from George Miller, a sequel to the smash hit and Oscar-nominated family film which is unlikely to please the same audience. The film retains and expands upon the surreal, fairytale tone of its predecessor but curiously eschews the comedy. This is an often dark moral fable of how the pure heart of the sheep-pig brings a sense of hope to the animal denizens of the city. It ultimately is equally an appeal for a bright and true heart as the first one, but its sense of the desperation of modern urban life makes it unsuitable for children or parents eager for a light, amusing rerun.

The plot begins where the first left off, with Babe and farmer Hoggett (James Cromwell) returning to the farm following the sheepdog championship to the adulation of the local people and animals. Immediately one senses something amiss however in the language of the voice over, which is both complex and slightly melancholy. The film quickly charts the traumatic injury of farmer Hoggett after falling down a well and the impending doom of the farm. Fiesty Magda Szubanski is thrust into the limelight as Mrs. Hoggett. When the bank threatens, she takes Babe to the city (whose skyline is a beautifully designed amalgam of all the major cities of the world) to participate in a State Fair (which they miss due to a misunderstanding at the airport). There they stay at a boarding house inhabited partly by animals. After a series of misadventures, Babe is left to fend for himself, and encounters a variety of other city dwellers in need of some kindness.

Beautifully designed, stylishly directed and again technically marvellous (mixing live action, animatronics and CGI almost seamlessly), Babe: Pig in the City is nonetheless a curiously difficult film to recommend. To be fair the difficulty is not so much in the recommendation, as to whom it is made, as Babe: Pig in the City is probably best appreciated as dark fantasy rather than as the family fare as which it has been marketed. It crafts a wonderful world of unreal and usually satirical people, animals and places into which our intrepid hero is cast with his honesty and integrity intact from the first time out (again voiced by Christine Cavanaugh). He is pitted against a more cynical bunch of fellow animals though, including a troop of performing apes (a monkey, three chimps and an orangutan), and a mafioso-like pit bull terrier. Their eventual transformation and redemption is only after a long and frequently depressing journey through the heart of urban darkness which includes the intervention of terrifying human agencies.

There are some well mounted action scenes, including a hair-raising chase and a truly bizarre climax at a society dinner interrupted by Mrs. Hoggett in an inflatable clown costume (don't ask). There are also plenty of effective glimpses of the world seen through the eyes of animals. There is very little humour in evidence though, and what moments there are are drowned by the predominance of scenes of suspense and drama. This makes it less entertaining than the original, though it is certainly well done. Miller is a skilled stylist and he has contributed a sequel which truly builds upon rather than simply rehashes its predecessor. He has taken the peculiar and almost unique tone of Babe (which he produced) and moved the action to another level. He has changed its pace and mood and presented a film which seems as richly textured as its forerunner despite repeating many of its cinematic conceits. In this, Babe: Pig in the City is a worthwhile experience and makes interesting viewing.

One might question the wisdom of its shock tactics though, based as they are upon the audience's expectations. It will probably outrage some and win Miller many enemies among the paying public seeking pleasant diversion on a wet afternoon. As for how children will react, who can tell? The novelty of talking animals will still play well, and they may find less recognisable darkness in the film's barbs at contemporary urban attitudes. As fable it still rises to a redemptive moral conclusion (which we might call a 'happy ending' if we chose), and argues for upright behaviour and 'human' decency, which is all to the good. Yet there are perhaps too few amusements along the way for the very young and adults whose tolerance for such films is borderline at best will find themselves baffled.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.