Looking back at these movies from the summer of 1995 is really interesting to me, but it doesn’t seem like a very good summer for movies. I mean, DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE was really good. That was at the very beginning.
Now all the sudden it’s August and this G-rated Australian talking animal movie comes out. There were signs that it might be interesting for that sort of thing: It had a nice storybook look to it, and a new idea of digitally animating mouth movements and expressions on animals instead of just feeding them peanut butter.
But you guys, BABE is more than just better than expected, and ended up being a phenomenon. Even though it’s seen as a kid’s movie, it’s one of such precise, economical storytelling, such unique vision and such sweet sincerity that it ended up with 7 well deserved Oscar noms (short for nominations): Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor (James Cromwell supporting a bunch of farm animals!), Best Art Direction, Best Editing and Best Visual Effects (which it won – take that, only other nominee APOLLO 13).
And that was not just Oscar silliness, or the world getting swept up in some crazy 1995 shit. I just watched it again and 20 years later BABE is still a perfect movie.
It is the story of a farmer (Cromwell) who wins a pig (voice of Christine Cavanaugh) at the fair and a sheep dog (voice of Miriam Margolyes) takes care of the pig and the pig starts acting like a sheep dog and… you know what, I’m gonna assume you guys have heard of it.
I’ve seen this a bunch of times, but it had been a while, and this 20th anniversary viewing was honestly the first time I’d ever been conscious of many of the shots being puppets. Man, those are great puppets by the Jim Henson Creature Workshop. Major credit is also due to Karl Lewis Miller, who was in charge of animal action. He had also worked on CUJO and WHITE DOG, and even handled animals for REMO WILLIAMS and BEST OF THE BEST 3. But here he does so much to make these animals act. Plenty, but not all of it comes from the animators changing the expressions. There are some shots, like the one with Fly watching her puppies being taken away, that are simply incredible. Compare that to WAR HORSE, where they zoom in for meaningful looks and the fuckin thing stands there looking like it has no soul.
That they used them instead of Andy Serkis is one of the only things that proves this was made 20 years ago and not today or any time between. I guess if it was now then the Hoggetts’ son-in-law would try to give them a smart phone instead of a fax machine. But it’s all so separate from 1995 pop culture, fashion or trends that it’s absolutely timeless.
The Oscar nominated director and co-writer is Chris Noonan, a veteran of Australian television and documentaries who had no previous feature credits. The producer, writer, and guy who read the book by Dick King-Smith and spent a decade trying to make it into a movie is George Motherfuckin MAD MAX Miller, who seems to me to be the George Lucas of this shit. He does the commentary track on the DVD/Blu-Ray and listening to it it’s easy to forget he didn’t direct.
Much credit, of course, goes to the book. I admit I haven’t read it, but based on plot summaries it sounds like the movie is very faithful to the overall story and characters, it’s not one of those things that just takes the kernel of an idea and expands it into something really different. The few additions, though, seem significant. They added the character of Rex (voice of Hugo Weaving), the stubborn sheep dog patriarch who has the biggest evolution of anyone in the story. He’s unhappy with Babe staying with his family, then being allowed to herd sheep. He’s not evil, though, so he lets everybody do what they want over his objections, and only clamps down menacingly after something bad happens. He seems respected on the farm, but partly out of fear. He’s bitter about something that happened to him in the past, and takes it out on the animals in his life.
Eventually he even alienates himself from his wife (or mate I guess?) Fly, and in human terms would be a domestic abuser, because he angrily bites at her during an argument, and ends up separated from the family and muzzled. But he redeems himself. (Oh shit, somebody’s gonna rewatch this and write a think-piece.) Babe earns his respect so Rex swallows his pride and talks politely to the sheep, makes compromises to them and for the first time admits his hearing problem, so that they will help the pig. He learns from him.
Another addition is the attempt by Ferdinand the duck (voice of Danny Mann, also on the Kid ‘n’ Play cartoon) to steal the “mechanical rooster” (alarm clock) from the house. It’s a comical scene, and very George Miller in its complex chain reaction design, but it also deepens the story’s theme of animals needing a purpose so that their purpose isn’t to be meat. Babe is naive about this. He gets into sheep pigging because he sees the dogs doing it, it seems like what he should do, and nobody (at first) tells him not to. And he finds that he has his own way of doing it that works.
But Ferdinand is acting out of desperation, not passion. He doesn’t seem fit to be a crowing rooster, but he forces himself awkwardly into the role hoping it will save his ass.
“Her name’s Rosanna,” Ferdinand says dejectedly as the animals spy through the window at the Hoggetts enjoying their Christmas feast. Cut to a knife slicing into juicy golden duck meat beautifully decorated with a row of orange slices. I’m sure some parents are uncomfortable with this movie for kids that portrays a daily part of their life (eating meat) as barbaric. But you can’t be true to the animals’ perspective and not deal with that. I think most people respect the movie for its directness and honesty. This is a pig, he lives on a farm, you can’t bullshit us and pretend that his family wasn’t raised to be chopped up and eaten.
So the movie doesn’t fuck around, it opens with his mother being taken away in a truck, replaced by a milking machine, a robotic suckler. He doesn’t know where his mother is going, but we do. There’s a particularly horrifying line sweetly intoned by narrator Roscoe Lee Browne (THE CONNECTION, UP TIGHT!) in the opening: “In those days pigs believed that the sooner they grew large and fat, the sooner they’d be taken into Pig Paradise, a place so wonderful that no pig had ever thought to come back.”
(You will arrive at the gates of Valhalla, shiny and chrome!)
When he does find out the truth it’s handled with appropriate seriousness. He asks Fly if people really eat animals, even “the boss” (Farmer Hoggett), and if that’s what happened to his family. She doesn’t sugar-coat it, she firmly tells him the truth. Babe says he’s all right and goes off to be on his own, and the scene ends with several seconds of silence. He has to decide on his own how to feel about that, and so do we.
That honesty might be part of why the unbridled sweetness of the triumphant ending goes down so well even for many who are instinctively cynical about that sort of stuff. We have acknowledged the problematic relationship between man and animal, but without demonizing he at the top of the food chain. The Hoggetts may have eaten Rosanna, but they’re still so lovable. Cromwell’s face has never looked so interesting, his limbs never so long. And so much of his performance is in his silence. He talks so little that this conversation happens:
Esme: What are you babblin on about?
He only said two words, 50% of which were at her prompting, and by his standards that’s babbling!
He’s a hard working man, obviously, keeping this farm running all by himself, but makes time to painstakingly construct a beautiful dollhouse. Is this a badass juxtaposition? No, it’s so much more. It turns out to be a Christmas gift for his granddaughter (Brittany Byrnes), but the little brat immediately cries when she sees it, because “It’s not the right one! I want the one I saw on television!”
That says alot about Arthur. He’s got the love, the patience and the talent to create something like that for his granddaughter, but the appreciation for such things has not passed down through the generations. The Hoggetts remind me a little bit of my grandparents, so I hope I was never like those kids, who are like younger versions of the ingrates in GRAN TORINO.
Throughout the movie we watch as this man spots little things going on between the animals, interactions that we the viewers understand, but that a real human should never believe possible. So eventually it occurs to him that he has to try teaching this pig to herd sheep. And this is definitely one reason why the movie means so much to me. It’s about a guy who has this idea that he knows would seem stupid to other people, but he also knows he has to do it.
This is a message of blatant sincerity on par with THE MUPPET MOVIE. That movie gets to me because this group of friends are working together to follow their creative dream, and you know that this is really what Jim Henson and the gang were doing. When the puppets sing “life’s like a movie write your own ending / keep believing, keep pretending / we’ve done just what we’ve set out to do” you know that every word of that is the absolute truth.
And BABE is the same way. The narrator says, “When the thought first came to him, Farmer Hoggett dismissed it as mere whimsy. But, like most of his hair-brained ideas, it wouldn’t go away.”
Hoggett has to go and face that committee and that laughing crowd. He knows they all think he’s an insane person. And he’s not even trying to prove them wrong. He’s just doing what he feels he has to do. He’s a painfully shy person but he feels the need to go out there and hold his head up high and do his thing. Fuck what you think.
Another narrator quote I love: “But Farmer Hoggett knew that little ideas that tickled and nagged and refused to go away should never be ignored, for in them lie the seeds of destiny.” That’s important to me because it’s the philosophy of most of my proudest achievements in life, large and small. You get a stupid idea that you can’t let go of and you know that you just have to do it. This approach to life has been practiced by Miller in such activities as raising money to make a revenge/car chase movie while working as an emergency room doctor, spending 10 years getting a movie made out of a talking animal book he read, switching to animation for an insane jukebox musical about tapdancing penguins (and making it a huge, Oscar winning hit), and of course spending all those years to make sure if the MAD MAX series has to die it’s gonna die historic on the Fury Road.
But Miller takes it further. He’s not just trying to express himself, he’s trying to make the world a better place. His hero, Babe, he of the “unprejudiced heart,” learns to ignore Fly’s advice to “Whatever it takes, bend them to your will!” and instead charms the sheep by talking to them politely, complimenting them and making small talk about the weather and shit. With this approach he wins the support of everyone on the farm, even Rex, and helps Farmer Hoggett win over the entire audience, including his wife, who scoffed at his “hair-brained idea that wouldn’t go away.” And this Miller clearly believes in too.
“With a good heart and courage you can indeed change things,” he says on a making-of featurette. “It’s not only something that I’d like to believe in, it’s something that I truly do believe in.”
Babe certainly changes life for Farmer Hoggett, bringing out a part of him he probly never knew he had, or at least never was able to reveal. One of the most moving scenes is, of course, when Babe is sick and refusing to eat, and this “lively sort” as the sheep dog competition commentators sarcastically call him sings the pig a quiet song which slowly builds to him dancing a jig and leaping in the air FOOTLOOSE style. But the even more powerful Hoggett moment is him being his quiet simple self when he says the famous last line of the movie.
I know a guy – not me – who tells himself he’s not gonna tear up this time when he watches it and it seems like he’s gonna be okay but then, boom, “That’ll do, pig” and there’s just tears there. Can you believe that? Ha ha, what a chump is all I have to say about that unnamed individual.
I guess I already called BABE a perfect movie, so this must follow, but this is the perfect ending. It’s the sports victory but also it’s everything else hitting at the same moment. Babe has proven that it was not folly to want to herd sheep, he has shown that it works to be nice, the other animals (including the disgraced ex-champion Rex) have helped him so they share in his success, Hoggett has turned the scoffing crowd, judges and commentators into cheering fans, Esme has gone from humiliation to pride and some understanding of her husband’s quirks, and Hoggett and Babe have shared a nice moment of bonding together. The pig earned a compliment from the boss. All that happens at the same time, the music swells, cut to credits and musical celebration. No epilogue, no discussion of what has happened, no wrapping things up or happily ever after narration scene, just the end.
I like to compare the end of MARKED FOR DEATH to BABE. He breaks Screwface’s neck and throws him down an elevator shaft where he’s impaled, he says “I hope they weren’t triplets,” he struts off and the credits roll. No cooling down period or victory lap, just quitting while he’s ahead. But for some reason I didn’t include it in Seagalogy that it’s the BABE ending of Seagal movies, so I guess I’ll have to use it here. BABE has the MARKED FOR DEATH ending of talking animal movies.
In the 20 years since, Noonan has only directed one other feature film, 2006’s MISS POTTER starring Renee Zelweger as Beatrix Potter. Weirdly he co-wrote TICKET OUT, a 2012 Ray Liotta thriller, with Hunger Games Author Suzanne Collins. He’s also directed a few episodes of Australian TV dramas in recent years.
Another Dick King-Smith book, The Water Horse, was turned into a movie in 2007.
Three years later Miller wrote and directed the sequel, BABE: PIG IN THE CITY, a more ambitious and more Miller-ian creation unlike anything you’ve ever seen, which therefore terrified the public and made them cry like a bunch of fuckin babies. Still, he was able to eventually get HAPPY FEET off the ground, an animated film that explored a similar idea of an animal who changes the world by doing something he’s not supposed to. Like BABE, it was hugely popular and acclaimed, and followed by a weirder, less successful sequel.
And then FURY ROAD.
Cromwell, who had been a working actor since an episode of The Rockford Files and had been in all four REVENGE OF THE NERDS movies, suddenly had a much higher profile, with major roles in THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT, STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT, L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, SPACE COWBOYS, W., and on and on. But also SPECIES II.
Cinematographer Andrew Lesnie went on to shoot all six LORD OF THE RINGS and HOBBIT films, as well as RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. He died much too young earlier this year.
The digital effects techniques used in the movie were hugely influential, causing animals to talk in many other movies and commercials and things. Rhythm & Hues, the studio that provided those effects (and had also worked on BATMAN FOREVER and WATERWORLD that year), eventually specialized in fully digital animal characters on movies including STUART LITTLE, SCOOBY-DOO, GARFIELD: THE MOVIE, ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS and YOGI BEAR. Perhaps their masterpiece was LIFE OF PI, which they won another Oscar for. Unfortunately around that time they also had to file for Chapter 11. Hundreds were laid off and then the assets were sold in an auction.
The great director of Thai martial arts films Prachya Pinkaew (ONG-BAK, TOM-YUM-GOONG, CHOCOLATE, ELEPHANT WHITE, THE KICK, TOM YUM GOONG 2) named his production company “Baa-Ram-Ewe” after part of the sheep’s password.
VERN has a new action-horror novel out called WORM ON A HOOK! He has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the film criticism books Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal and Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer!: Writings on Bruce Willis, Badass Cinema and Other Important Topics as well as the crime novel Niketown.