It makes perfect sense to deduce this film as an experience filled with vibrant warmth. When the film starts and the title fades in, a book is open to reveal all the pictures that would correspond to all the chapters of the film. The film almost asks us to snuggle up together by a fire and listen to the comforting resonance of a narrator reciting a story of fantasy but of deep humility. Actually, that is exactly what happens in Chris Noonan’s “Babe,” released in 1995. If there was ever a measure by which this film transcended its children’s movie marketability, it managed to grab seven Oscar nominations, including for Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, and even Supporting Actor, a feat, once you think about it, that has not really been propagated to other children films. Upon viewing this film again on the big screen at the Dryden Theater, there is no question of its power. It’s simplicity in characterization gives it so much room to embellish on its heart and soul.
Babe, the pig at the center of this story, is a classic orphan, exuding a sense of curiosity but also respect. After witnessing his mother being taken to ‘pig paradise,’ Babe ends up at a humble farm because of his instant connection to farmer Arthur Hoggett (played superbly by James Cromwell). Immediately feeling his outcast status, Babe quickly learns the social stratification of the farm. Dogs, cats, and horses comprise to make up a nobility. Ducks, sheep, and pigs are considered stupid. There may be some echoes of a certain Orwellian novel diffused in the motivation of such a social construct, but it also clearly lays out the world Babe has just entered and must adhere to. Alas, having misadventures with another outcast, Ferdinand the duck, concludes with Babe getting a stern talk by Rex, the head sheep dog, who puts him in his place.
Babe and Ferdinand are outcasts, though, for very unique reasons. Ferdinand is a duck who wants to be a rooster so he can crow to welcome the new day. This leads to some amusing scenes between Ferdinand and the actual rooster as well as his idea to destroy the ‘mechanical rooster.’ Babe, on the other hand…well, he wants to be a sheep dog. This obliterates the social norms of the farm and causes quite a stir, especially with Rex. This story, co-written by Noonan and Greg Miller (yes, the one of “The Road Warrior,” fame), is so simply told but effectively expressed. The main players all make intriguing arcs and grow with such depth that these animals, who seem to ‘act’ with much grace and enthusiasm, are immediately sympathetic. Fly, the female sheep dog and mother of several pups, loses her pups at some point because they are sold and finds comfort in returning to her motherly role with the outcast and naive Babe. Rex finds it hard to accept Babe as the new sheep dog, slowly winning the favor of the farmer, whose life has been tragically limited by his own dedication. Ferdinand lives as bombastically as his frantic flying, and rebelliously accepts his role as an outcast. Even the sheep collectively produce a mindset that makes their relationship with the dogs, Babe, and the farmer all so interesting and somewhat relevant to real world situations.
Babe may be an overtly positive individual, but the film itself it littered with cynical undertones apart from the realistic stratification. The idea of death lingers uneasily within the world of the farm and Babe’s realization to how the real world works comes upon him with much oppression. Babe’s unique passion runs perpendicular to, “…the way things are,” as told by several of the animals, an almost suffocating characteristic to a severely restricting way of life. The naivety of Babe only supplements such a characteristic in that any sympathy generated toward this pig is quite forward and potent form the audience.
But let’s talk about James Cromwell’s performance as the farmer. His relationship to Babe is both so powerful that no spoken dialogue needs to express it but there is also mystery. Cromwell’s role isn’t that of commanding the screen but reacting to the bizarre happenings of his farm. He strikes an explicit balance of being dumbfounded but expressing a tiny inkling of a notion that he knows what is going on between the animals. He is the first to notice Babe’s talents as a herder, something even the other animals ignored. Nevertheless, this mere fact that very few words are spoken between the pig and the human (and the farmer is a man of very few words) is a magical focal point of the film. Illuminating an understanding and great sense of care, the film isolates the moments of connection between the two characters, identifying them as powerfully precious episodes that tug at the heart. In one of the film’s most brilliant scenes, the farmer nurses Babe when he is sick. He decides that song and eventually dance might cheer the pig up. Singing a variation of the song, “If I had Words,” that almost implies Scottish roots within the Cromwell character, the scene succeeds in depicting a charming moment between two individuals who understand each other with minimal effort while also enriching the character of the farmer, who is predefined in a detaching position as all the animals refer to him as the boss. Because the farmer speaks so few words in the film, Noonan found many points to highlight changes in the main human character and Cromwell employs the diversity of his facial expression, or the subtlety of it, to succeed in creating a kindhearted and fatherly character. That the academy nominated Cromwell for Best Supporting Actor was an ambitious choice but the right choice.
The photography is beautiful, and in 35mm, the warm palette of the landscape and textures are brought out with vibrancy. Careful attention to the set design and its rustic idealism makes for a farm that teeters between fantasy and real, a perfect storybook locale. There are also some intelligent pieces of composition and camera movements. One shot tracks the farmer and his wife from inside the house as they cross the kitchen. In the foreground it is revealed to us their cat which has been drenched in paint with a previous altercation with Babe and Ferdinand. The brief moment that the humans do not notice their now colorful cat coupled with the patient tracking shot is a moment of tense hilarity. It will not be the only time the film employs such character.
“Babe” is indeed a film for all ages. This warmth that has been referred to throughout the piece is a resonating feeling that transcends all generations. Such a feat cannot be accomplished without a visual and special effects team equipped with a set of efficient skills and a sense of creativity. This film was an intersection of two amazing effects studios: Jim Henson’s Creature Shop and the late but great Rhythm and Hues. The results of such fine work are seamless and captivating, creating a glorious film that cares not just for its characters but the viewers who watch them. Every scene detailing Babe’s rise to sheep dog prominence is laden with a sense of humor seasoned with triumph, leading to one of the finest scenes in a children’s film at a sheep dog competition. It beats out “Milo and Otis,” and far surpasses “Homeward Bound,” this film is magical and grounded at the same time. Despite the ensemble cast being made mostly of animals, there is a great amount of humanity injected into the film and a great amount of human imagination.
Babe :: 92 minutes :: Rated G