Today is the first day of DOGATHON (February 19th - 22nd) and I'm happy to join in the fun with my post on one of the best films about animals - pigs, dogs, ducks and all manner of farm critters, including humans - ever made.
Our host is Rick over at his blog, CLASSIC FILM & TV CAFE, so remember to check in at DOGATHON Central and pick up the links of other participants - some of who are posting today as well.
All the films being talked about, will have at least one dog in a significant role.
As we all know, dogs and pigs are not only photogenic, but smart as heck. Much as I love cats - and I do - dogs gotta' rule. (There is a cat in the film as well, but he plays the part of pain in the butt troublemaker. Par for the course. Ha!) "Beware of a bad cat carrying a grudge."
BABE (1995), directed by the inventive Chris Noonan, is a film that will win your heart (unless you're a curmudgeon with no redeeming social or human qualities whatsoever). It's the sadly sweet tale of a little pig who isn't quite ready to accept his lot in life. Meant to be Sunday dinner, he, instead is slated to fulfill another destiny.
When stoic Farmer Hoggett, played by the wonderfully laconic James Cromwell wins a piglet at the local fairgrounds, little does he know that this is not just an ordinary pig. Once installed at the Hoggett farm and with the guidance and help of Fly, the female sheepdog who takes a liking to the hapless little guy, Babe will learn, against all the odds, to herd sheep. Outlandish! Yeah, but it happens and you accept it in this charming little film based on the book by Dick King-Smith.
The setting for this pastoral fable is, I suppose, meant to be either Australia or New Zealand, but that's never mentioned. In fact, the setting as art directed by the huge production team looks more like a fairy tale interpretation of a farm. From the thatched roof barn to the quirky Tudor-like main house, it all looks like the kind of place you'd imagine if told to imagine a farm from whole-cloth - it's what farms should look like.
The photography is absolutely wonderful at giving the Hoggett farm and bright green surroundings an 'other-worldly' look. The whole production plays out as if everything were happening inside a snow globe - minus the snow. It really is a heartwarming fantasy in so many ways. Even the opening credits are not to be missed.
BABE is the kind of film an adult can watch and not feel he or she is being condescended to. In fact, the film's themes will probably fly right by a child's head and understanding. In many ways, I think the film is meant more for the adult heart.
An Eden this is not. There is always the bittersweet undercurrent. Christmas Eve dinner is a duck which is necessarily, slaughtered in the barn by Farmer Hoggett - though we don't see any of the dark details. Babe himself barely escapes being turned into a roast. It is a dread all the older animals know about and live with, but which Babe is totally unaware of.
No one at the farm wants to tell him what will happen to him after awhile since 'pigs have no other purpose.' No one wants to tell him that his mother was taken from the nightmarish agri-business factory farm (seen at the beginning of the film) where Babe (and his many brothers and sisters) was born, and sold to a meat processing plant.
I admit I do get misty when Babe lies in the barn hay crying for his mother. I mean, it is very touching and not in any sugary, sappy way. Damn it, the thing makes sense. Of course a baby animal will miss his mother.
When Fly the sheepdog, takes Babe in hand...uh, paw, he is allowed to sleep with her pups until they're old enough to be sold. That is the dog's destiny though it doesn't make Fly miss her pups any less when the time comes.
Each animal on the farm must be prepared to deal with his or her own part in the grand scheme of things, even if some of it makes no sense. That's just the way things are. Even if Ferdinand the duck hates being a duck and wants to be a rooster. Even if the sheep think humans are barbarians. It all adds to Babe's initial confusion.
One of the film's ploys is the use of three little mice as a kind of squeaky Greek Chorus. They show up at the end of some scenes, barely visible to the viewer, singing some little song or other to herald or counterpoint what's going to happen next or what has already happened. The film's clever visuals play into this.
For instance when it seems as if Babe is going to be picked to be the next night's dinner, the mice sing a few notes from the death scene in the opera, Carmen. At other times, they sing Blue Moon and other assorted little ditties. It is very funny.
Babe himself, is voiced perfectly by Christine Cavanaugh. The other animals are equally well cast, each voice capturing the particular animal's personality. Fly - voiced by Miriam Margolyes - the mothering sheepdog, sounds as gentle, wise and intelligent as we know sheepdogs to be.
Fly and Rex
Her consort, Rex is voiced by Hugo Weaving and has the gruff manner of a male dog not used to playing second fiddle to a pig. He is also a dog growing older and bitterly resentful. Unknown to the humans, Rex is almost totally deaf since being trapped overnight in a terrible storm, trying to save some isolated sheep stragglers. His deeply felt dignity is affronted by the pig's sudden insertion into his and Fly's sheep-herding duties.
The sheep, by the way, are voiced in such a manner that if you could imagine a sheep speaking, these are the voices you'd imagine. When they laugh at Babe the first time he tries to round them up, they laugh exactly as sheep should laugh.
The entire tale is lovingly narrated by Roscoe Lee Browne in just the right way, with just the right matter of fact, slightly gravelly tone. He is telling us a wonderful story and knows it.
The beautiful and noble sheepdogs, Fly and Rex are central to the movie. Fly, especially, in her understanding of Babe's naivete and gullibility, allows him to call her, Mom. The affection between them is part of the movie's charm. Fly is partially responsible later in the film for saving Babe's life when he is suspected of attacking one of the sheep.
When Babe finally finds out the hard, piggish facts of life - the jealous cat has spilled the beans - he is so upset and frightened that he runs away. When brought back, he sinks into a desperate depression from which Farmer Hoggett does his best - not knowing what is really wrong - to cheer him up. The vet tells him to get some liquids into the pig or he'll risk losing him. Hoggett resorts to bottle feeding and a soothing lullaby - of sorts. Don't roll your eyes, it is very touching and made me misty as heck.
Later, when the sheep herding trials take place, Hoggett becomes the laughing stock of the county for entering a pig in the competition. It is up to the dogs, Fly and Rex to communicate with the sheep back at the farm and come up with the right combo of words which will allow the unfamiliar sheep at the competition, to obey a strange little sheep-pig.
Let's just say that in the end, he who laughs last, laughs best.
James Cromwell can do no wrong as far as I'm concerned. His face is so silently expressive, the vague gleam of the dreamer lives in his eyes. This is the role he will be remembered for and I can't imagine anyone else in the part.
I read in the IMDB notes that after this film, Cromwell - a vegetarian - became a vegan. I don't blame him.
To view a trailer of BABE, please use this link.
The movie is available for online viewing as a rental from Amazon and also available as a dvd from Netflix.
That'll do, Pig.