Saturday, June 24, 2006

Babe: Pig in the City (Miller, 1998)

There are intelligent people who feel that Babe: Pig in the City, the follow-up to the Oscar-nominated children’s film, is an underappreciated gem. Not the least of these was the late Gene Siskel who famously called it the year’s best film. Though I was no big fan of the original film, I approached the sequel with a great deal of optimism - partly because of director, George Miller, who helmed the Mad Max trilogy and partly because of the promise of a film of dark strangeness and a willingness to confront the topic of death. Though it is uncomfortable for us to admit as much, death and dying is a subject of great interest to a child. The questions they ask are serious, even if they understandably have little grasp as to what it really means. Children’s films can be extraordinarily moving in this regard when the filmmakers have the courage to trust and challenge their young audience. The Brave Little Toaster and Kirikou and the Sorceress are noteworthy examples of exemplary children’s entertainment that is both enjoyable and meaningful.

Unfortunately, Babe: Pig in the City falls well short of this standard. Despite impressive visual effects, art direction and animal wrangling, I cannot get on board with the theory that this is anything more than a well-executed gimmick film. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to put something like Babe: Pig in the City together. The cast is made up almost entirely of various livestock, as well as some monkeys and a few of the more well-behaved domestic animals like dogs and cats. With the help of some realistic-looking puppets, the animals interact with one another and walk in groups and perform basic tasks. It is surely an amazing feat of choreography, patience and editing. However, it is unfortunately not a technique that I find conducive to making compelling drama. My complaints are similar to those I had about Babe. These creatures that we are supposed to accept as characters are clearly indifferent to the drama they enact. Despite our attempts to capture them on camera in moments that strike us as anthropomorphic, their eyes speak only of obedience, impatience or boredom. With animation, any manner of creature can be given a human spark because it is humans who are adapting them to their needs. However, there is just no way to make a simple pig care.

While these complaints may seem trivial to some, I firmly believe that it places a cap on what a film like this can achieve. I don’t see the film others see. I don’t see drama. I see the film for what is really is - a series of animal tricks strung together. I see a pale shadow of drama that has been robbed of the core humanity that is essential to make it work. Strangely, I was reminded of Werner Herzog’s Heart of Glass which was performed by a hypnotized cast. The effect is similar. Zombified players being coaxed through the motions of a formula that is supposed to result somehow in meaning or understanding. Am I taking the film too seriously? I don’t think so. If the film wanted to simply be a light comedy, I would review it on those terms. Unfortunately, the film has aspirations it cannot achieve

In the end, I was left unmoved and largely unentertained by the experience, as was my son who gave up forty minutes in. I had little idea of what Babe’s journey was supposed to amount to, nor what lessons viewers were supposed to take away. I was impressed by individual moments and found it difficult to bear the film much ill will; however, it is my opinion that the film is exactly what is looks like: a talking pig movie. No more. No less.



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