“That’s do pig. That’ll do.”
And with those words, one of the all-time great films came to a close in 1995. .
Life is good on Hoggett Farm. The animals know their roles and there is rarely any deviation from the status quo. The sheep are dumb. The sheep dogs are cruel. The cows give milk. The mice belt out showtunes. And the pigs…well, the pigs are there to be eagerly devoured on holidays and family visits.
When Babe, a young pig fortuitously won by Farmer Hoggett (James Cromwell, L.A. Confidential) at the local fair, arrives on the scene, the social dynamics change immediately. Babe shows a knack for competitive sheep-herding and before Hoggett’s family can get the farmer committed, he takes a risk on the porcine prodigy and enters him in a competition — and what follows, the Gods of Agro-Athletics still sing about to this day.
I am not kidding with all that “all-time great films” talk. Babe is 100%, pasteurized, pure organic magic. As a kids film its credentials are impeccable: charming characters, colorful vistas, slapstick duck humor, singing mice, dogs in peril and verbal sheep abuse. But look past the shout-outs to the toddler crowd and I defy you to not be wowed by what George Miller and his talented crew pulled off.
Even now, so many years after the fact, the special effects are fantastic. The production staff imbued the animals with personality through three ways: trained animal performances, animatronics and CGI-enhanced effects. The result is peerless, all of the tricks impressing in their own way; the CGI is minimal and not intrusive, the robotic constructs befuddle over what animal is real and what is synthetic and the real life training-produced performances are arguably the best ever captured on screen. The fruit borne from this painstaking work is a world made up of anthropomorphic barnyard animals that is completely believable. My disbelief was thoroughly suspended, as I thoroughly bought into Rex and Fly’s fractured relationship, Babe’s naïve insecurity and that cat’s soul-blackening evil.
With his world set up, Miller simply needed to then focus on telling a good story, and the tale he weaves is a charmer, a colorful (and deceptively deep) saga that feels like a classic storybook come to life. The fact that it was based on a storybook explains this, but the aesthetic Miller infuses goes a long way into propelling Babe into a realm of art that not many talking-animal movies occupy.
Though the quadrupeds get most of the attention, the human element is just as noteworthy. I am convinced that James Cromwell’s work here is one of the most enduring performances of the last twenty years. The guy’s dialogue is sparse beyond belief (on the commentary track, Miller notes how committed he was to having Hoggett speak in just one word as much as possible), leaving Cromwell the unenviable task of doing 95% of his acting with his face and body language. It’s terrific stuff, capped by a legendary final line that still gets my eyes just a tad misty, you know, like there’s a speck of dust in my — ah, screw it, I weep like an infant.
Too bad Universal couldn’t quite deliver the epic Blu-ray Babe deserves. The picture receives an HD-remastered 1.85:1, 1080p treatment and the improvement is noticeable (especially since the only copy of this film I’ve had was the antiquated full frame debut version). Detailing pops out nicely during tighter scenes — Cromwell’s craggy face offers the resolution a playground of delights — but on wider shots, particularly pull-backs of Hoggett’s farm and the sheep-herding contest, picture quality appeared softer. It’s a solid visual experience, though I wanted to be stunned, considering how gorgeous the photography is in the film. Sound is fine, coming from a DTS-HD Master Audio mix, nicely processing Nigel Westlake’s playful score. Extras are disappointing, all of which are recycled: a brief making-of featurette, an interview with George Miller (both in SD) and, the best offering, Miller’s commentary.
Not Guilty. Here’s to The Greatest Talking Pig Story Ever Told! (FU Gordy.)