Accidental tourist

'Babe: Pig in the City': The urban adventures of everyone's favorite talking pig makes for one of the most exhilarating films of the year. By Stephanie Zacharek.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Published November 25, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

If you go to "Babe: Pig in the City" expecting the gentle, pastoral charm of the original, you're bound to be disappointed. Sometimes, when it looks as if director George Miller is about to break faith with the audience, this "Babe" doesn't seem like much fun -- and yet I found myself consistently awed by it, drawn helplessly into its spell of craziness, bedazzled by its sophistication, not to mention its genius production design.

"Babe: Pig in the City" is one of the most exhilarating and bizarrely satisfying experiences I've had in the movies all year. It's occasionally distressing, sometimes distractingly manic, but also insanely inventive and magical, and far, far stranger than its predecessor. It's one of those children's movies that pushes far beyond the boundaries of what's considered safe and acceptable -- a movie that's beautiful and confused and adamant in its mission to sow chaos, as so many kids' movies are not.

In the most basic way, "Pig in the City" is true to the spirit of the first "Babe": Its message is that no one has to accept his or her assigned place in the world, and that little pigs (or little people, for that matter) can achieve great things. It's a brightly painted circus wagon loaded with giggle-inducing gags and slapstick, but it's also surprisingly intelligent moviemaking in sheep's clothing. Its dark tone shifts can catch you off-guard, but it also has its share of tender, gorgeous moments that whiz out of left field. You're never sure what to expect next.

The setup of "Pig in the City" is simple: The Hoggetts are in danger of losing their farm when Farmer Hoggett is laid up after an accident. Esme Hoggett (Magda Szubanski, here filling the main human role as James Cromwell's Farmer Hoggett did in the first picture) decides to take sheep-herding hero Babe to a big fair, hoping that the money he earns for his appearance will be enough to save the farm. But a couple of wrong turns later, she ends up in jail, with Babe (whose winsome voice is supplied by E.G. Daily this time out) wandering a big, strange city.

In his new and unfamiliar surroundings, Babe -- he of the noble gray tuft, lighthearted, brave and true -- hooks up with an assortment of winged, feathered, four-legged and two-legged friends, many of them strays.

He and Esme have landed at a special hotel where animals are secretly welcome, against all city regulations, and a good deal of the movie's action takes place there. (We see the creatures scampering and trotting along the staircases and landings that wind around the perimeter of the hotel's open lobby -- sometimes it's as if the action is circling our heads.) The animals move and talk with the help of animatronics, but as with the original "Babe," their animal nature is still miraculously preserved. Even the trio of singing mice maintain an air of dignity during their squeaky rendition of Edith Piaf's "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien."

Babe's other friends include a couple of show-biz chimps (their voices provided by the hilariously dry Stephen Wright and the effortlessly charming Glenne Headly) whose facial expressions are more human than those of some human actors; a stately orangutan who wears the sadness of the universe around his baggy brown eyes; an overwound Jack Russell terrier who's lost the use of his back legs but scoots along just fine by way of a little wheeled harness; a pink poodle with fluttery eyes and Blanche Dubois mannerisms; and a mafioso bull terrier who starts out mean and nasty but ends up transformed after Babe saves him from drowning. ("A murderous shadow lies hard across my soul," he says as a way of explaining how his tough-guy nature has been bred into him.)

The plot unfolds in jerky, sometimes slapdash angles and twists that don't matter much except that they move the action along: Babe saves the day, over and over again, and ultimately is reunited with Mrs. Hoggett. (His rescue occurs at a fancy ball; Mrs. H., wearing an inflatable clown suit -- don't ask -- spends much of the scene bouncing along the ceiling like a Macy's parade balloon, a bobbing symbol of the movie's go-for-broke lunacy.)

But while the action is engaging enough, what's really impressive about "Pig in the City" is the way Miller can take your breath away with small moments. Babe's friends have been imprisoned in a hospital lab, and he rescues them, leading them to safety. At one point we see them in silhouette against a twilight sky, crossing a narrow upper-story walkway connecting two buildings, as a woman in a billowy white dress flutters through the alley below. In the same sequence, the animals traipse through a children's hospital ward like a ragtag parade. We see their shadows passing silently along the wall as they trot past a row of iron beds; one of the children wakes up and sees them, his face lighting up with delight and wonder, and it's no less than what Miller makes us feel.

That said, the only way I could get through some portions of "Pig in the City" was to think of it as a kind of European art film -- one that I knew would have a happy ending. A sequence in which a troupe of scary animal-control officers storms the hotel wearing lab coats, padded suits and jackboots goes on far too long, and the sight of frightened animals running in all directions, and of sweet dogs being lured to their entrapment with treats, just isn't fun. (The children in the audience I saw the movie with seemed to have less trouble with the animals-in-distress business than I did; even so, I'd hesitate to recommend it for very young or very sensitive children.)

But as anxious as the scene made me, I can't say that Miller made it cheap; he doesn't stoop to those god-awful traumatizing Disney moments. (No animals die in this "Babe.") Miller always redeems himself just when it seems that he's going to milk us dry. At one point, we're led to believe that Flealick, the Jack Russell in the wheeled harness, has finally gone to meet his maker: He lies in the street, his body twitching, one up-ended wheel turning creakily, and it's too much. But suddenly, Miller cuts soundlessly to a vision of dog paradise. We see Flealick bouncing up and down in a green field loaded with butterflies, a perfect picture of dog joy, his harness cast aside, Clara-like.

The scene -- short, surreal and hysterically funny as well as breathtakingly gorgeous -- represents exactly the kind of heaven that's hoped for by everyone who's ever lost a beloved pet. Of course, Flealick's time isn't up yet -- he hears Babe calling him and comes back to the land of the living, quickly righting himself, and righting the movie, too -- but his brief interlude in paradise is a reassurance from Miller that he cares for his characters as much as we do.

And if nothing else, "Babe: Pig in the City" is even more of a visual treat than the original. "Babe" production designer Roger Ford and cinematographer Andrew Lesnie have outdone themselves this time around. When we see the Hoggetts' farm in the early sequences, with its honey-toned fields and verdant stretches of grass, it's like being reunited with an old friend. But we haven't seen anything yet: Babe's foray into the city is rendered in the same paint-box colors, but they're even more fanciful -- as well as being mysteriously softer and brighter -- than in the earlier movie.

When Babe, lonely in the city, gazes out the circular window of his hotel, he looks out on a gently colored cityscape that's a magical array of every great urban landmark you've ever seen on a postcard or a souvenir charm bracelet: There's the Statue of Liberty, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Eiffel Tower, the Sydney opera house, the Hollywood sign. Babe's hotel is a bright, candylike building that sits on the edge of a shimmery canal, as if Venice and Hong Kong intersected on one street corner. Even the human characters are rendered in incredible colors: Mary Stein is delightful as the eccentric innkeeper who allows pets in her establishment. With her swan neck, china-doll skin and flapper's bob, she's like a Mary Engelbreit illustration come to life.

But it is of course the animals that make "Babe: Pig in the City" click. As Babe rounds up his friends at the lab so he can lead them to safety, the orangutan -- a clown's assistant who's used to wearing a coat and pants -- quietly asks the other animals to wait for him to dress. And, patient and naked, they do. The idea of an orangutan needing his clothes to maintain his dignity is either touching or absurd, depending on how you look at it. But in "Babe: Pig in the City," you're about as likely to scoff at it as you are to expect a pig to fly. That he can talk, of course, is already a given.

Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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