A sequel that can proudly stand by its predecessor
Babe: Pig in the City
Let it be known that I was one of the very few individuals to want Braveheart to lose at the Oscars to Babe, the 1995 family film. Of course, that was before I became the cynical and jaded person I have become. I preferred films that dealt with happy subjects. I didn't like Se7en the first time I saw it in 1995. Now, I think it's 1995's best film. As you can tell, my taste in film has changed considerably (mind you, I still think Babe should have won, since Se7en wasn't nominated). So upon hearing about the release of a sequel to Babe, I was worried that I might not like it. From the previews, I thought I would hate it.
And gosh darn it, it takes those expectations and flips them completely. Just as the first film did, it surprises with a touching and heartfelt story that is very hard to find these days. Taking themes that can be used in everyday life, Babe created a modern day fairy tale. The old story of an outsider trying to find his place in society was reinvented for animals. A pig, stolen from his mother, gets sold to a farmer. This farmer nurtures him, hoping for a fantastic Thanksgiving ham. But he then spots something different: this pig could herd sheep better than any sheep dog ever could.
Well now that pig is back, and I couldn't be happier. Frankly, this is exactly what a sequel should be. It doesn't really improve on the original... it builds on it, making the franchise as a whole more solid. It's not better than the original, mostly due to some particular plot elements that keep it from reaching the status that Babe did. But other elements, most notably the visual style, improves it dramatically, making it an equal. For once, a sequel that doesn't rely on rehashing the same old themes the original did. Surprisingly, I wouldn't mind it if this film were nominated for Best Picture again. You aren't going to find a better family film all year long.
BABE: PIG IN THE CITY begins precisely when the original left off. As we left Farmer Hoggett (James Cromwell) three years ago, his pig Babe (now voiced by Elizabeth Daily) won the sheep herding contest after being ridiculed by humans and animals alike. A parade is now thrown for the pig and his "human" as they arrive back home to greet his loving wife, Esme Hoggett (Magda Szubanski). But trouble is around the corner. As Babe wonders what to do next, he watches as Farmer Hoggett descends into their well out back, in order to update it. Unfortunately, Babe gets a bit too close, and falls in, causing Hoggett to smash his finger in the pulley, plunge to the bottom of the well, and get hit on the head by the counterweight which held him up. Needless to say, he is unable to work for quite a while.
Esme takes over the chores, but she finds herself struggling, and soon, two men dressed in black, their eyes seeming hollow and soulless, arrive. Yes... they're bankers. They want to sell the farm unless the Hoggetts can come up with money to pay for their mortgage. Despite the prestige the pig has brought them, they are still struggling. They received many invitations for the pig to come perform, including a well-renowned festival. In return, a nice sum of money will be rewarded. Esme decides to take Babe to the festival, hoping the money will suffice to save the farm. But trouble brews at the airport when a drug-sniffing dog shows Babe how he gets security's attention. Esme is now suspected for carrying drugs, and she misses her connecting flight to the festival. Depressed, she wanders aimlessly to find a motel that will accept pets. Being unsuccessful, she sits and waits in the airport when a mysterious janitor hands her an address. "They'll take care of you there," he says.
She finds the hotel, a massive, four-story building one might find in Disneyland. The landlady (Mary Stein) seems nervous and fidgety, and finally accepts the two into the hotel. Inside is a world of animals, varying from dogs to cats to mice to monkeys. Outside is a world of hatred and anger. Babe now must befriend his fellow inhabitants, find food, rescue enemies, and save the farm. How can one pig do all this? Easy, when you are Babe.
While the plot seems rather childish and loony, it's handled with the utmost intelligence, mixing themes with thoroughly entertaining sight gags. Instead of trying to fit one pig into a different world, we have a pig trying to unite two sides together. In order to successfully live, the enemies of instinct must combine and set aside their natural urges. When Esme travels outside the hotel to find a pay phone, she discovers a world of hatred, one very similar to the animals' world. Surprisingly, these complex themes are handled very well, and the adult viewer will be pleasantly surprised by the intelligence in which it is handled. While some family films pander to the lowest common denominator just to amuse kids, BABE: PIG IN THE CITY tries its hardest to entertain everyone at the same time. And it does, on every aspect.
Visually, this is definitely one of the best of the year, definitely beating What Dreams May Come and even Pleasantville. Full of incredibly funny sight gags, from the wickedly designed hotel to the humorous landscapes, BABE: PIG IN THE CITY incredulously improves on its predecessor in this aspect. Looking out the window of the hotel, one can see the entire world scrunched down into one city. You see the Hollywood sign on one end, and the Statue of Liberty on the other. There's also the Sydney Opera House, and the Eiffel Tower. The original film set itself in a magical, mystical place where anything could happen. Here, it's set to include the entire world. Frankly, this film will be nominated for at least one Oscar, and that's for Best Set Design. Roger Ford, the production designer, will receive an Oscar nomination again for his work on this sequel. If he does not, then there is no justice in the world. Frankly, I don't see how the Academy could overlook his work. Every set is immensely appealing. The hotel and the surrounding Venice-like waterways are a sight to behold. The puppet animals, such as the pelicans, are wonderfully cartoon-ish. Simply put, it's a real-life cartoon. It's pure eye-candy, and I ate it up intently.
Costume designer Norma Moriceau has an incredible job, creating costumes for every single animal and human. This varies from black-and-white tuxes and ballroom gowns, to sweaters and clown suits, Moriceau impressively creates a perfect costume for each individual's personality. The cinematography Andrew Lesnie does an extremely good job at capturing the fairy tale-like story that unfolds before the camera. The colors are vivid and bright, even in the middle of the night. Look for both to be nominated at the Oscars. Animal trainers Karl Lewis Miller and Steve Martin (no, not that Steve Martin) arguably had the motherload of the work placed on them. Many animal films have animals that obey simple commands or seem just like animals. But here, the animals come to life, producing extremely life-like characters. If it were possible, I believe that Bob (Steven Wright) and Zootie (Glenne Headly), the husband-and-wife chimps in Fugley Floom's (Mickey Roonie), deserve Best Supporting Actor and Actress awards. I'm not kidding. You really have to see their performances to believe it. In the history of film, I have never even thought of an animal receiving an Oscar nomination. Here, I have made an exception.
The performances are uniformly terrific, despite the lacking presence of 1995's Oscar-nominee James Cromwell. Though he has a limited performance, we still care about him from the first film. Now, we get to learn more about Mrs. Hoggett, portrayed by Magda Szubanski who exudes energy in every inch of the frame. Frankly, I feel sequels should do this more often: center on a different character, instead of the original human lead. Now, we know both characters equally well. Szubanski is a gem to behold as she fights to save her farm. She balances the film very well. The other main human character is Mary Stein. Making brief appearances on Star Trek: The Next Generation and other various shows, she finally lands a role that could introduce her to the world. Her towering 6-foot-1 body is appropriate for the strange role, but she plays it with deadpan humor. As soon as I saw her, I knew I'd like her. Mickey Rooney also makes a brief appearance, but he has a heart attack and is removed from the film rather quickly.
The voices are also terrific, especially the two aforementioned chimps. Frankly, I don't want to mention all of them, so I'll just give a list of my favorites. Elizabeth Daily, of course, who takes over Christine Cavanaugh's vocalizations from the previous film. Strangely, you can't tell the difference (it may be that Cavanaugh and Daily both provide voices for The Rugrats television show). Danny Mann is Ferdinand, the quirky duck who hates to be without Babe at his side. Mann is hysterical once again. The scene-stealers are Wright and Headly, who turn in incredibly delicious vocal performances. If these two actors could receive Oscar nominations for their voice work alone, they should. James Cosmo, Nathan Kress, and Myles Jeffrey all do great work as the other chimps. Adam Goldberg is hilarious as an arthritis-stricken dog who must wheel around in a hind-leg coach. And while I'm not sure who did the voice, the little kitten who complains, "I'm still hungry," is sad but cute at the same time.
Director George Miller, who also produced and co-wrote the original, has done an immense job in bringing this film to life. Filmed in Australia where filming is much cheaper (yet the film still cost around $80 million), Miller was able to capture the same intensity and tone the original had. His impressive resume continues to grow (it's hard to believe this is the same guy who provided us with pure evil in The Witches of Eastwick). The writing team of Miller, Judy Morris, and Mark Lamprell have crafted a finely-tuned screenplay with witty dialogue that never seems tacky or forced. It's smart, funny, and sad all at the same time. Just as many sequels are, this one is darker than the original, but as they say, "The best family films always have a dark side." To prove this, just look at the classics: The Wizard of Oz, Matilda, Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast. All had dark sides to them. BABE: PIG IN THE CITY is no different. The music is pretty similar to the original, right down to the singing mice (this time, a little more prominently... just 'cause they're so cute!). This is one of those few films that provides you with many different emotions, but you leave the theater feeling good all over.
BABE: PIG IN THE CITY is rated G for some violence and some suggested sex (though nothing harsh whatsoever). If this sounds too harsh for your children, it really isn't. The audience I attended the film with seemed overwhelmingly pleased, especially little kids. Even adults cheered the film's intelligence. If the Oscars do award this film with another Best Picture Oscar, I wouldn't be disappointed in the slightest. While it's not quite as cheerful as the original, it certainly pleases those looking for an entertaining time at the movies. I'm pretty sure that this film will end up on my top ten list at the end of the year.
**** out of ****
Reviews by Boyd Petrie