Tuesday, August 20, 2013

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #72 - Babe: Pig in the City (1998, dir. George Miller)

Yes, I’m 100% serious. I love this sequel to a film centered on a talking pig. Don't look to other contemporary talking animal or kiddie movies to compare this to, because it will dust anything you can come up with (except the first Babe film, which even so is a much more straightforward movie). Gene Siskel called it the best movie of the year that it came out, and I agree. The Thin Red Line, Happiness, Rushmore, The Big Lebowski – all have their virtues and Babe: Pig in the City stands above every one of them. A 1998 Japanese film I also love, After Life, comes close, but for the complete ingenuity of George Miller’s vision in his film I’d have to give him the nod. What so special about it, you ask?

 Well, more than just a kids’ film, this is a film that’s aimed at cinema enthusiasts and it just so happens that kids can enjoy it as well. There are nods throughout the film to the pratfalls of silent comedy and the films of Jacques Tati, and without going into full-on homage mode like Scorsese’s Hugo, this film pays tribute then goes its own way, creating a world “in a place just a little to the left of the 20th century” that touches on our world but isn’t beholden to its rules, like any good fantasy film. And the designs throughout – from The City, to the color schemes he uses in the city and at the climactic charity ball, to the pet-friendly hotel – are simply brilliant. The first nine minutes pick up on the farm where the first Babe film left off and then set up the action of rest of the film (and as a side note, if you haven’t seen that, you really ought to, though it’s not entirely necessary for enjoyment of this film) before Babe and his human (Magda Szubanski in a great comic role as Mrs. Esme Cordelia Hoggett) set off for The City, which is one of the first of George Miller’s strokes of brilliance in the film. 
The design of the unnamed metropolis consists of a delightful composite of major world skylines – the Hollywood Sign, the Sydney Opera House, the Golden Gate Bridge, etc. - an intricate canal system through the main part of town, and numerous neon signs and billboards proclaiming things like “Eat,” “Win,” “Eternity,” or “More Please,” reducing all advertising slogans to their core messages. It’s all cities and any city – cold and inhospitable in some ways, but with individuals scattered throughout who are warm and caring. Upon arrival in The City we shortly enter a segment of the film entitled “Chaos Theory” where Babe and his human both find themselves engulfed by chaos – Babe caught in a comedic show (lead by Mickey Rooney in a mildly disturbing role) in a children’s hospital and Esme Hoggett lost in the black, white and grey city, searching for her lost pig. This leads to an exciting chase sequence with a dog that’s possibly a little intense for young kids. Those who don’t like the film call this part of the film “dark” but it gets right to the heart of the film’s ideas.
The smart narration that will be familiar from the first film notes that Babe: Pig in the City is “…an account of their calamitous adventures, and how a kind and steady heart can mend a sorry world.” Its messages are simple - be nice to people, don't judge a book by its cover, don't let cynicism beat you - but to me that's powerful enough and can stand to be said until the world gets in line with that program. I hate corny words like "magical" when describing a film, but it fits here better than any film I can think of in the last few decades.
- Patrick Brown

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