Babe - Pig in the City

My Rating:

Surreal and exciting, especially charming if you like animals.

Bitable Bytes:
"Far from what you might expect!"
"Totally engrossing!"
"Wildest slapstick since Charlie Chaplin!"

What to do while watching:
Marvel at how it's so unlike what you expected.

What to eat while watching:
Popcorn with salt and butter.

From the name, "Babe - Pig in the City" to the cover of the video or DVD with it's Disneyland pastels, to anything you might recall from the first Babe movie, you would expect to be subjected to something terribly sweet and terribly youth-oriented. In fact, rare is the adult that would even consider renting this movie.

I can't tell if all the packaging is intended as irony or if someone wasn't planning carefully enough, but what you get from Pig in the City is far from what you might expect. It's genuinely dark, so though the lessons are fable-quality and the animals are often cute, there is quite a bit of material that will strum the mental harp of many an erudite adult.

The paradox is that in spite of its strangeness and arcane archetypes, Babe still delivers the same basic messages that Mickey Mouse would, i.e., be brave, be kind, believe in yourself. But the method by which the lessons are delivered is far removed from the familiar talking-animal-movie M.O. This picture looks startlingly like Delicatessen or City of Lost Children, with exaggerated, grotesque characters and cityscapes that Jean Jeunet might have consulted on.

The film's outlook on the world is a realistic optimism. It reaches a happy conclusion, but it has to work for it through the shackles and dungeons of discrimination, violence, and cynicism. In doing so, it's totally engrossing.

Babe is not beyond playing on the natural love of animals that humans feel, but, again, it's not done in the regular way. The movie places a squeaky-voiced pig at the center instead of a Benji, Lassie, Bella (that's my dog), or even a Mr. Ed. The movie starts where the last one has left off: Babe has discovered a gift for herding sheep. In fact, Babe is a champion shepherd, besting even the top canines. With his prize in hand, he returns to the farm with his boss, the farmer, and the boss's wife.

Tragedy strikes quickly. The farmer, attempting to fix a well, falls victim to that old yarn about the bricklayer. Manipulating a heavy load at the end of a pulley, he is yanked up and down as the weight on the other end goes from heavy to light, connecting mid-flight each time with the pallet, and having all kinds of bones broken in the excruciating process. If you don't know what I'm talking about, search Google for "The Bricklayer's Song." Or watch the scene unfold in graphic detail for one of the best examples of dark comedy there is. The scene is funny, but--ouch!--not so funny. If only it were Wile E. Coyote and not a live-action man.

With the farmer at death's door, the whole agrarian operation is hobbled, and very soon, two faceless, bowler-hatted bankers step out of the Magritte sky and threaten to foreclose on the farm. The farmer's wife gets an idea: she can enter Babe in a shepherding contest in the big city and use the prize money to save the farm. And so the frowsy, earthy, chunky woman in the floral dress takes her little pink pig to The Big City. The city is an amalgam of metropolises, with elements of NYC, Paris, Venice (Italy), Venice (California), Seattle and Hong Kong all wrapped into one overwhelming skyline.

The city is not nice to the farmer's wife, and she is quickly separated from Babe. In a mix-up with the police, some bikers, and a bucket of glue, she winds up in the pokey. Babe, meanwhile, finds himself is a strange hotel for animals, operating on the fringe of legality. Babe hooks up with a band of traveling apes, led by the creepy Mickey Rooney. But when the act folds, Babe is left to the mercy of the manipulative monkeys in a dog-eat-dog world. In fact, the pig is nearly wolfed by a pit bull while the chimps monkey around.

Babe is lucky to survive the encounter with the pit bull, but he doesn't shirk the lucky break. The chase has left the ferocious canine on the brink of drowning, and Babe rescues the beast, making a friend for life. By doing the right thing, Babe continues to win support from all the dogs, cats, chimps, rodents, and fish that he meets.

It takes a long time for the power to shift in favor of the visitors from the farm, and all the while, the good guys are on the verge of capture, starvation, and being eaten. Meanwhile, there's a farm to save. Not for one moment does the movie slow down, and the climax is one of the wildest samples of slapstick since Charlie Chaplin. I won't give it away, but I can tell you that it includes bungee suspenders and an inflatable suit.

Three mice make up the Greek chorus that frames each chapter of Babe's urban adventure, and a frank, male voiceover frames the frame. The attention to detail is extraordinary. The colors are mad and alluring. The acting is freakishly loveable (I adore Steven Wright as a chimp). In all, Babe delivers far beyond expectations and is one of the top tier of movies: a film that cares enough to put all its energy into making something worthwhile. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and that, too, is part of the moral. Ten stars!

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For your collection: Babe - Pig in the City (DVD), Babe - Pig in the City (VHS)

Gooden's Listening To: Eric Bogosian, Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll

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