Saturday, May 20, 2017

BABE: PIG IN THE CITY: A Talking Pig Masterpiece

With Mad Max: Fury Road, seventy-something director George Miller has enjoyed a well-deserved career revival. His newest movie, several decades in the making, is the work of a visionary, a wild blur of visuals and ideas that mixes high art with grindhouse trash. Unless I’m drastically misremembering Driving Miss Daisy, I’m pretty sure Fury Road is the only best picture Oscar nominee with robot arms, post-apocalyptic nightmare-scapes, and guitars that spew fire.
Because of the critical and commercial success of Fury Road, a lot of people have revisited Miller’s original Mad Max trilogy. And even if you have a low tolerance for Tina Turner’s weird lip-acting, you have to admit that those movies have aged surprisingly well. The effects are good, the acting is strange, and the plots move along with fury.
It’s a shame, then, that Miller’s non-Max films haven’t had the same surge in popularity. Barring Lorenzo’s Oil (which is what it is), the rest of his directorial output is feverish and awesome. The Happy Feet movies use dancing penguins to surprisingly subversive ends. The Witches of Eastwick is a cute diorama of a small town with Jack Nicholson bouncing off of every surface. Even his segment in the Twilight Zone movie is delightfully batty. (“There’s something on the wing of the plaaaane!”)
That leaves one more movie in Miller’s ouevre, and I’d like to argue that it is his masterpiece. It’s a talking pig movie with senile clowns, balloon pants, and opera-singing rats. It will also make grown men sob like babies. I’m of course talking about Babe: Pig in the City.
No offense to the original Babe, the Oscar-nominated smash hit that Miller wrote, but Pig in the City is a superior film in every way. Like Fury Road, it offers a consistently thrilling experience, with some of the most striking visuals in cinema. A notorious flop (though Siskel and Ebert both loved it), Pig in the City has grown a small cult of fans, but not nearly as many as it deserves. Here are the five reasons why Babe: Pig in the City is such a masterpiece:
Five. The animal work is amazing.

One of the centerpieces of the film is a chase between the titular pig and two city dogs. The three animals hop over canals and through alleys. They knock over giant piles of rubbish. When the chase starts, the dogs are chained to each other. Through the scene, the dogs get disconnected. One goes free and the other gets hooked to a manual lawn mover. The whole scene is like a Rube Goldberg machine, but with real animals. Every time I watch it, I have no idea how any of this was filmed. By the end of the chase, when one dog is dangling over a bridge and the pig pushes a boat through the water to save him, I’m a sobbing mess of a person: bowled over by the emotions and amazed by the logistics.
The whole movie is like that. Every scene is crammed with animals—dozens of animals, hundreds of animals—and everything works like clockwork. It never stops being emotional, but there’s an underlying layer of awe to everything. If you don’t ask yourself “How did they do that?” at least once during this film, then you’re not paying attention.

Four. There are millions of little nuggets.

Speaking of paying attention, this movie begs for close examination. Rewatch this movie, and you’ll pick up on more and more of the little stuff. I’ll give you one example. There’s a woman who illegally runs a hotel for animals. She clearly loves animals, even though she’s putting herself and her business in jeopardy. She’s also—judging by her stuffed-up voice and red nose—very allergic to them. Now, in a lesser children’s film, she would sneeze comically. Characters would talk about it. In a lesser movie, her allergies would be more obvious. In Pig in the City, you might not even notice she has them. It’s a wonderful bit of character development, and a potent metaphor for her potentially damaging relationship with these pets, and yet it’s never really commented on.
That’s just one example of the thought and care put into this movie. Every time I see it (which is often), I notice some other little thing. Like the wild chases and action scenes, even the quiet moments are designed like clockwork.

Three. The story is a fairy tale.

Like an great fairy tale, Pig in the City has this potent, universal appeal. The story isn’t just about one pig going to one city and experiencing one adventure: it’s about anybody who faces danger and comes out the other side a better, more developed person.
Let’s take a look at the city itself. Twice in the film, Babe looks out of his hotel window at the big, bad city outside. Do you know what he sees? He sees the Hollywood Sign. And the Sydney Opera House. And the Golden Gate Bridge. And at least a dozen other famous landmarks all sandwiched together in a beautiful, ugly hodgepodge. This is not just any city. This is every city. This is the whole idea of a city, and all the dangers and pleasures and complications that that entails. Like the city itself, or the “farm” itself, everything is universal, which makes for a satisfying, emotional experience.

Two. The hero is a gentle idiot.

I can’t overstate the appeal of Babe, the titular hero. He’s a simple pig who has no defining characteristic aside from his “kind and steady heart.” Because he’s so simple, he doesn’t understand why people have to be mean, or why dogs and cats can’t get along. By virtue of being a normal, nice animal, he makes everyone else reevaluate their issues.
Babe is a lot like Forrest Gump. Forrest Gump went from adventure to adventure, making the world a better place just because he was too dumb to accept any of the problems around him. It’s a character type that you don’t see a lot, but it’s one that viewers will instantly sympathize with.

One. There’s a real sense of danger.

The best part about Pig in the City is that there’s a real sense of danger throughout the whole movie. It starts with “the farmer” nearly dying in an accident that Babe causes. It ends with the almost-death of a baby chimpanzee. And throughout the movie there’s a senile clown who dies (of a broken heart, presumably), a dog who nearly drowns, and a handicapped puppy who (temporarily) ascends to Dog Heaven where he can finally walk again. Clearly, this has some dark moments.
And honestly, all great children’s movies do. Bambi’s mother dies. The Huntsman tries to steal Snow White’s heart. Dumbo’s mother sings to him through prison bars. All the classics of children’s cinema have real darkness and real dangers. I believe that children can handle much darker themes than we give them credit for. More than that, I believe that children need to see these darker themes in their entertainment, so that they will be better prepared for life. The overly sanitized, DreamWorks version of children’s entertainment doesn’t allow for real danger and death, and that’s such a shame.

Pig in the City’s true strength is that it’s unafraid to get dark. Then, when our simple hero is able to overcome the obstacles, it’s a powerful experience.

Anyone who loved Fury Road will probably also love Pig in the City. On paper, they seem like polar opposites, but they share a lot of the same strengths: a real sense of danger, constantly changing visual poetry, a hero of few words who gets into increasingly dire situations, a jaw-dropping precision to its action scenes, and a simple story stripped of any extra fat. The biggest difference is that Fury Road was embraced by the world, and Pig in the City was promptly forgotten. Maybe if the pig played a fire-spewing guitar, things would’ve been different.