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1 item from 1998

Film review: 'Babe: Pig in the City'

25 November 1998 | The Hollywood Reporter - Movie News | See recent The Hollywood Reporter - Movie News news »

This is a wolf in pig's clothing. "Babe: Pig in the City" -- while waddling along in the guise of a family film -- is down to its shank, a grizzled depiction of a vicious and hideous world. Dark-toned and laden with oppressively grimy aesthetics, it's more akin to the sort of snide-and-sour offering one encounters at independent film festivals or Left Bank art houses, not what one expects given the film's sweet pedigree. Undoubtedly, Universal will slice some hefty boxoffice grosses over the holiday weekend based on the giddy expectations that recall this sequel's proud lineage, but word-of-mouth will be decidedly "Oscar Mayer" -- this porker is headed quickly to the slaughterhouse. Sensible parents with tots will be particularly nettled by the film's cruel and sadistic depictions such as animals squirming in death throes, etc.

While those folk who shop at Piggly Wiggly may be turned off by its dark and nasty ingredients, "Pig in the City" may find its best pastures overseas. With its pessimistic underpinnings, addled plotting and abstract meanderings, it's the sort of surreal cinematic slab that might be selected as a first-weekend competition entrant at Cannes.

Narratively, "Pig in the City" is a pig-out-of-water yarn. Old man Hoggett (James Cromwell) has been laid up and is in danger of losing ye olde farme. It's up to his spunky wife Esme (Magda Szubanski) to take hold of the reins and save it from foreclosure. The only course of action is to go to the city and capitalize on Babe's recent fame and garner an appearance fee at a big-time fair. Unhappily, air travel, being what it is today, botches things up and Esme and Babe never make it to the fair on time. They're left stranded in the big, bad city and take refuge in a seedy Bates-like hotel infested with all sorts of weird and dysfunctional creatures. Undeniably, the sweet-natured Babe and the stout Mrs. Hoggett are a sympathetic duo and we certainly want them to experience no harm. It's in these initial city scenes as Babe and Mrs. Hoggett counter The City Slickers' hostilities with their down-home brand of kindness that "Babe" really jells. Babe's naive and helpful ways are not only endearing, they are inspiring, and given the awfulness of the situations, quite funny.

But alas, this sequel focuses more on the maliciousness of the city characters as well as the inherent evil of the city (civilization) itself than it does on Babe's goodly, transcendent nature. Thematically, the power of one tiny individual to make the world a better place is lost in the film's overall ferociousness. As written by George Miller, Judy Morris and Mark Lamprell, the screenplay is not so much a scenario as it is a pessimistic smear of the dangers of city life. Narratively, it's merely assaultive as Babe and Mrs. Hoggett endure evil after evil. Structurally, the story is largely without tendons: it's a mere compendium of similar scenes -- Babe and Mrs. Hoggett enduring attack after attack. Eventually, this larder limps off to a pat and force-fed resolution, a happy-feel ending that is, well, just plain out of left field. Nonetheless, there is considerable skill in the writing: the dialogue is droll, deadpan and downright funny in a sparse kind of way. Unfortunately, it's going to be lost on much of its target audience, indicative of the enterprise's elevated, coffeehouse-noir sensibilities.

Still, "Babe" is filled with delightful moments in large part due to the charming animal cast, including not only pigs, but ducks, dogs, monkeys, kitties and cows. The voicework is terrific, particularly E.G. Daily's winning warbles as Babe and James Cosmo's wily deliveries as a monkey named Thelonius. Not only are these animals winning in their "performances" but they are integrated nicely into the story by the skilled and creative workings of the production team. In particular, costume designer Norma Moriceau's animal and human costumes are a constant delight chock full of personality and humor. Also a plus is cinematographer Andrew Lesnie's smartly composed groupings: back shots of Babe peering out at the big-bad world are wonderfully cute and comforting.

This time out, James Cromwell appears only briefly as a bookend as the sinewy Hoggett. That's a shame, for his gangly, practical-mannered performance in the original was a true highlight. As the determined Mrs. Hoggett, Szubanski brims with energy and chubby cheerfulness, while Mickey Rooney is well-cast as a comedic codger. Mary Stein's angular agility perks up her landlady part with some nifty comic touches.

While wildly appealing as a pet show, as a movie, "Babe: Pig in the City" is penned in by the lackadaisical story line as well as the film's grimy sensibilities. Despite the funny flourishes of the costumes and some sprightly animated figures and spunky visual effects, "Babe" is a pretty oppressive-feeling production. Under Miller's dark hand, the film's inventively expressionistic production design (Roger Ford) and baleful musical score (Nigel Westlake) only serve to further sodden this surprisingly dreary family outing.


Universal Pictures

A Kennedy Miller film

Producers: George Miller, Doug Mitchell, Bill Miller

Director: George Miller

Screenwriters: George Miller, Judy Morris, Mark Lamprell

Additional unit director: Daphne Paris

Director of photography: Andrew Lesnie

Music: Nigel Westlake

Editors: Jay Friedkin, Margaret Sixel

Production designer: Roger Ford

Costume designer: Norma Moriceau

Executive producer: Barbara Gibbs

Visual effects and animation: Ryhthm & Hues, Mill Film, Animal Logic Film

Animatronics: Neal Scanlan Studio

Concept artist: Peter Pound

"That'll Do" written by Randy Newman, performed by Peter Gabriel

Animal action: Karl Lewis Miller

Casting: Alison Barrett, Nicki Barrett, Barbara Harris

Art director: Colin Gibson

Sound recordist: Ben Osmo



Mrs. Hoggett: Magda Szubanski

Farmer Hoggett: James Cromwell

The Landlady: Mary Stein

Fugly Floom: Mickey Rooney


Babe: E.G. Daily

Ferdinand: Danny Mann

Zootie: Glenne Headly

Bob: Steven Wright

Thelonius: James Cosmo

Easy: Nathan Kress, Myles Jeffrey

The Pitbull and the Doberman: Stanley Ralph Ross

The Pink Poodle: Russi Taylor

Flealick: Adam Goldberg

Nigel and Alan: Eddie Barth

The Sniffer Dog: Bill Capizzi

Fly: Miriam Margolyes

Rex: Hugo Weaving

The Narrator: Roscoe Lee Browne

Running time -- 88 minutes

MPAA rating: G


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