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No Kid Friendly Fix

January 22nd, 2009 · 6 Comments

Babe: Pig In The City (1998)
Screenplay by George Miller & Judy Morris & Mark Lamprell, based on characters by Dick King-Smith
Directed by George Miller
Produced by Kennedy-Miller Productions
Running time: 96 minutes

Victorious at the National Sheepdog Championship, Farmer Hoggett (James Cromwell) and Babe the Gallant Pig (voiced by Elizabeth Daily) receive a parade on their way back to the farm. But as The Narrator (Roscoe Lee Browne) warns us, “The first hazard for the returning hero is his fame. The adulation can spin you quite giddy.” When Babe tries to help the boss repair a well, he sets in motion a disaster that injures poor Hoggett. Facing financial ruin, Mrs. Hoggett (Magda Szubanski) accepts a “generous appearance fee” for Babe to demonstrate his sheep herding skills. The pig is hesitant to leave the comforts of home, but the sheepdogs Fly (voiced by Miriam Margolyes) and Rex (voiced by Hugo Weaving) tell him that to save the farm, he has no other choice.

Arriving by plane in Metropolis – a city whose fantastic skyline includes the Hollywood sign, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Sydney Opera House, the Eiffel Tower and the World Trade Center – Babe’s conversation with an overzealous drug sniffing beagle leads to Mrs. Hoggett being detained by Customs and missing her connecting flight. Stranded in Metropolis for a week, the farmer’s wife is directed to an animal friendly hotel at the edge of a canal. The Landlady (Mary Stein) is sympathetic to Babe given that her uncle Fugly (Mickey Rooney) is a clown who uses apes in his act. But Mrs. Hoggett sets off a disaster in town and is jailed, while the Landlady also runs afoul with the law. Babe finds himself a pig alone in the city.

A pair of trained chimps (voiced by Steven Wright and Glenne Headley) advise Babe that it’s “a dog-eat-dog world and there’s not enough dogs to go around.” Accompanying them on a search for food, Babe is tricked into entering the domain of the Pitbull. In the chase that ensues, the dog plummets into the canal, but as the other animals turn their backs, Babe rescues the Pitbull from drowning, making an instant friend. He’s also reunited with Ferdinand the Duck, who hitched a ride from the farm with pelicans. When the hotel is raided by animal control and most of the animals captured, Babe, Ferdinand and a handicapped Jack Russell terrier named Flealick (voiced by Adam Goldberg) mount a rescue of their friends.

Production history
With no stars, little advance publicity and modest commercial expectations, Babe – an adaptation of Dick King-Smith’s 1983 storybook The Sheep Pig – became the surprise blockbuster film of 1995. With masterful digital effects putting words in the mouths of animals more realistically than ever before, as well as manic inventiveness and a message of courage, critics lavished the children’s film with praise. Babe received seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director (Chris Noonan). It also grossed over $250 million worldwide on a budget of only $30 million. For Universal Pictures, making Babe 2 became a foregone conclusion.

The studio granted creative reign to George Miller – the visually ingenious Australian filmmaker who co-wrote and produced the original – to make a sequel. With Judy Morris & Mark Lamprell, Miller authored a script, and stepped into the director’s chair for the first time in seven years. When Babe: Pig In The City commenced filming September 1997 on soundstages at Fox Studios, Sydney – far from the scrutiny of Universal – 799 live animals were involved, from pigs to dogs to chimpanzees to mice. Most of the cast went before the cameras one animal at a time over multiple takes until their performance satisfied Miller. Once Roger Ford’s lavish production design and visual effects by Rhythm & Hues, Mill Film and Animal Logic Film were tabulated into the budget, the cost tripled – to $90 million – what was spent on the original.

Because even a rough version of the film was so dependent on the completion of the visual effects, no one got a look at Babe: Pig In The City until two weeks before its release Thanksgiving Day weekend 1998. Put before a test audience in Anaheim Hills, California on November 8, Miller found it overwhelming. “We had to remix the entire film. It was so loud, it was a complete assault on the ears.” Universal assigned six of its top sound engineers to work twenty hours a day softening the sound effects and the musical score. A test screening several days later went much better, but when studio president Ron Meyer got a look at the film, he was not happy with what he saw. Meyer contacted the owner of Universal – Edgar Bronfman Jr. – who agreed that Babe: Pig In The City was just too dark for kids.

A reviewer at the Anaheim Hills screening wrote to the website Ain’t It Cool News: “Babe 2 faithfully follows the unwritten law of sequels, in that it is much darker in tone than the original (e.g. Back to the Future 2, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom). There are moments so unsettling that I would hesitate to bring a very young or sensitive child to this film. It definitely earns its PG rating.” Meyer took the unusual step of canceling the film’s premiere, which was set to benefit the Children’s Defense Fund and scrambled to suggest a kid friendly fix to George Miller. The director omitted the two uses of the word “damn” and nipped a shot of a goldfish suffocating – which was enough for the MPAA to change their rating from “PG” to “G” – but the alterations did little to change the perception that the film was too dark for kids.

For the most part, critics couldn’t have disagreed more. On Siskel & Ebert, Gene Siskel – who would rank Babe: Pig In the City #1 on his list of the 10 Best Films of 1998 – said, “This is a magnificent, towering achievement. We’re dazzled by it. You take any five, ten minute section of this picture and you think of the work that went into the construction – the physical construction – the wit of the writing, and the charm of course of Babe.” Roger Ebert agreed. “What I like about this movie is the story, the dialogue and the characters all use the effects, instead of being the victims of the effects, and every single shot in this movie is enchanting and delightful and magical in its own way. I sat there and thought, ‘It’s too bad adults are gonna stay away from this, thinking it’s some talking pig movie.’”

Peter Rainer wrote in New York Magazine, “As it turns out, the new Babe isn’t the horror show that was rumored. But it’s certainly more raucous and rough-edged than the original. Arguably, it’s even better.” The raves ended up having little impact commercially. Coming in fifth place over the holiday weekend, Babe: Pig In The City went on to gross $18.3 million in the U.S. and $50.8 million overseas. George Miller didn’t comment on the film’s disastrous reception, but his spokesman Johnny Friedkin maintained that Universal was aware of Miller’s resume and knew exactly what type of film they were getting. “You had to be mentally deficient to read the screenplay and not see what was in it. There shouldn’t have been any surprises.”

Following a string of commercial failures that also included Meet Joe Black, Out of Sight and Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, Universal chairman Frank Biondi Jr. resigned. Two weeks later, Ron Meyer delivered a pink slip to film division chairman Casey Silver. Writing an article titled “Studio slaughtered Babe 2 Roger Ebert commented, “Why is it bigger news that Babe 2 flopped than that Babe 2 is a great movie? Because the head of Universal got fired after the pig’s flop – by corporate bosses who thereby brilliantly made absolutely sure that the headlines about Babe 2 in its first week would be negative. Babe: Pig in the City is a magical, original, daring, wonderful movie, one of the year’s best. Take my word for it. I’ve actually seen it.”

Babe: Pig in the City departs so majestically from the original Babe that its blueprint could be smuggled out of Hollywood and spread among rebel groups of filmmakers meeting in basements to plot the demise of the brand identity marketing empire that rewards repetition and resists originality at all costs. Never a director to retrace his steps or give moviegoers more of the same – as fans of The Road Warrior discovered with a gentler, more imaginative sequel in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome – George Miller applies that visionary approach to the Babe franchise and again, ended up being way ahead of the audience. Ten years later, Babe: Pig in the City is still not Babe, but it is a classic, one of the most exciting, creative and emotionally resonant films of the last 20 years.

Along with Roger Ford’s carnivalesque set design, cinematographer Andrew Lesnie shapes the storybook world of Babe with more wonder than all three The Lord of the Rings films combined. Technical craftsmanship – and the Rube Goldberg stunt sequences Miller gleefully unwinds on the audience – aside, the story is what resonates most. Babe’s rescue of the drowning pitbull reminds us that courage and sacrifice and a beautifully told story still stand for something. Babe is a hero is because – when given every opportunity to accept the bigotry or pessimism around him – he never loses his idealism, and makes his world a more loving place. A terrific tune over the closing credits – “That’ll Do” – features the vocals of Peter Gabriel and is written by Randy Newman.

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Alternate universe · Cult favorite · No opening credits · Road trip · Sequel

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Adam Ross // Nov 8, 2008 at 4:02 pm

    Great choice, Joe. “Babe: Pig in the City” is in many ways the perfect sequel, and there are so few other examples of what it achieves: furthering the story and everything positive from the first film, while still feeling original.

  • 2 Hoju // Nov 10, 2008 at 11:49 am

    I keep expecting to see a review of “Happy Feet” pop up here, one day. That would be a treat, as it’s one of Miller’s best films, I thought -along with this, and – and, well, it’s hard to seperate his films in terms of quality because they’re so consistant.

  • 3 Jeff McM // Jan 23, 2009 at 3:23 am

    Nice work, but for me, there are few major Hollywood movies of the last decade that I dislike more than this one. I find it not just dark, but brutal and punishing to its audience. I respect Miller for deciding to make a movie that functions as a 180-degree departure from what worked in the original; I respect it, but I don’t like it, at all.

  • 4 Joe Valdez // Jan 23, 2009 at 7:08 pm

    Adam: It’s a shame George Miller doesn’t work more than he does, but maybe if he did, his films would have that assembly line feeling that even talented directors like Sam Raimi or Bryan Singer succumb to in order to crank out consumer entertainment product. He caught flak for how different Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome was from The Road Warrior as well. Now, more people rip off Thunderdome than Road Warrior. Thanks for commenting!

    Hoju: Thanks for stopping by. Keep reading and you might see a CGI penguin movie profiled here. It just might happen one day.

    Jeff: You’re the first person I know of with good taste who didn’t like Babe: Pig In the City, but I understand your analysis. I can’t say that I would have gone in the direction George Miller did or would have signed off on it if I ran Universal. Obviously I’m a big fan of this movie. Thanks for commenting.

  • 5 Bunkum // Mar 1, 2009 at 11:36 am

    I agree with Hoju.

    Oh, that makes me all giddy.

  • 6 Joel Frady // Jun 7, 2010 at 7:06 am

    Too dark for kids? Maybe. But isn’t that parents are for, to discuss these elements. It saddens me the way Universal treated the film because they apparently don’t want anything to ever challenge a child or broaden their horizons.

    Then again, I’m slightly biased here – I’ve been a film critic for 10 years and this is still my favorite movie.

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