Blu-ray Review: BABE - As Magical As Ever

€˜Dogs look up to you, cats look down on you. Give me a pig! He looks you in the eye and treats you as an equal.€™ €“ Winston Churchill
I was a little alarmed when I was reminded that 1995€™s classic kids€™ movie Babe was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. It is a testament to the reception of this story about a quixotic piglet who aspires to the national sheepdog championships. In a sense it shouldn€™t have surprised me; the movie, very popular when it came out, was one of those movies parents dutifully took their kids to only to love it as much as, if not more than, their children. Part of the success no doubt comes down to the relative cuteness of the pig. There were, in fact, 48 of the little blighters because they grow up so quickly. There was also an animatronic double and CGI work to make the animals€™ mouths appear to talk along with the dialogue. These effects were done very well and without flash, and they stand up well today because they don€™t draw too much attention to themselves. The difficulty was not just in having a talking piglet, however, but also in giving voice to dogs, ducks, sheep and cats, and often having several in the same scene. The technical effects of Babe, impressive at the time, therefore hold up well, but that€™s not the reason the movie is cherished. It is remembered more for its wit, performances and for its story, adapted from a novel by Dick King-Smith. It concerns the destiny of young Babe, who at the beginning sees his mother go off to what he and his siblings think might be pig heaven, but which the audience thinks will be a bacon sandwich. He is won by Farmer Hoggett (James Cromwell) at a country fair, and, plucky wee fellow that he is, tries to ingratiate himself with the other animals. There are, as ever, animal politics and customs to observe, though not as many as in €œAnimal Farm,€ a novel Babe would have found to be terribly unfair. There is a past-his-prime sheepdog called Rex (voice of Hugo Weaving) and his partner (wife?), Fly (Miriam Margolyes); a duck that thinks it€™s a rooster; a cat that thinks it owns the house (what cat doesn€™t?) and some sheep who think that young Babe is just so polite after all those nasty dogs. The Hoggetts (Cromwell€™s wife is played by Australian comic Magda Szubanski) run the farm with a fairly benevolent warmth but as, nevertheless, omnivores. There are a couple of worrying scenes where Babe comes quite close to ending up in a pot. There were kids, I imagine, who walked into this movie munching hot dogs when it was released, and walked out vegetarians. James Cromwell €“ who went, during filming, from vegetarian to full vegan €“ is an example of perfect casting. He has, according to IMDb, 161 words in the movie, 51 of them sung during the dance he performs to cheer up Babe. If he didn€™t open his mouth once he would be just as well cast; it€™s less to do with what he says than with his look of quiet resignation and dignity. Indeed he is so well cast that if I saw him in anything after this, for years, and even after I knew what his real name was, I would say, hey, there€™s Farmer Hoggett. What€™s he doing in €œL.A. Confidential?€ The direction is by Chris Noonan, it is produced by George Miller and they share writing credit. The movie looks almost too English to be England, because it isn€™t; it was filmed in Australia and most of the humans who speak on screen were dubbed to give them American accents for the wider release. I did not know that until I watched it this time, and it was one of those things I couldn€™t un-notice. Since the novel was English, why not either use English actors for such roles or, since Aussie and American accents are equally nonsensical for the movie, just leave the actors€™ accents? Once you know the actors are mostly Austrialian, the judging panel at the end looks like it has been rented for the week from the set of €œStrictly Ballroom.€ That is a small criticism however; the movie is heart-warming (if you think you€™ve outgrown it be prepared for manly sniffing), funny, shot with a warm colour palate and with just enough darkness to affect young kids without upsetting them. The image of a farmer and his piglet at the end ought to be ridiculous or funny, but it carries a strange nobility with it. And Hoggett, who has already used up 156 of his 161 words, makes sure his last five count. Babe is out now on Blu-ray.
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I've been a film geek since childhood, and am yet to find a cure. Not an auteurist, but my favourite directors include Robert Altman, Ernst Lubitsch, Welles, Hitch and Kurosawa. I also love Powell & Pressburger movies, anything with Fred Astaire, Cary Grant or Katherine Hepburn, the space-ballet of 2001, Ealing comedies, subversive genre cinema and that bit in The Producers with the fountain.