A deep melancholy lies at the heart of Babe: Pig in the City, and is felt by all of the film’s many human and animal characters — even the ever-optimistic pig. Now 20 years old, George Miller’s idiosyncratic tale still carries the emotional heft that audiences turned away from in 1998. This was not the “kid’s movie” anyone was expecting.
But the film’s sometimes overwhelming atmosphere of regret is tempered by hope: no matter the wrongs we’ve caused, Miller suggests, it’s always possible to redeem ourselves with thought and kindness.
“At no other time in his short life had the pig wished more that his words could be understood by humans — if only to say, ‘sorry, boss.’”
Pig In The City finds Babe — the “sheep-pig” that could do no wrong — committing what in any family film would amount to an atrocity. The pig’s attempt to help Farmer Hoggett (James Cromwell) repair his well pump lands Hoggett in traction, a likely horrifying sight for young viewers. That action sets off a plot that takes Babe to the city of Metropolis, but the bulk of Pig in the City is devoted to a series of rich and emotional B-stories about regret, spider-webbing out from Babe’s own atonement.
Hoggett doesn’t blame the pig for his accident, but Babe blames himself. As the ironic refrain of “non, je ne regrette rien” recurs on the soundtrack, Babe amasses sadness and guilt. But he doesn’t dwell on or beat himself up over it. The pig simply sets about righting as many wrongs as he can. He’s barely aware of the situation with Hoggett’s wife Esme (Magda Szubanski), the bank and lapsed rent payments at the farm, but he can see the injustice and unfairness in front of him in Metropolis.
“You can’t undo what’s happened, son, but you can make up for it.”
Babe comes to the city accompanied by a cloud of guilt, though he’s not the only animal on the block with demons to face. Metropolis is a hostile place, full of angry punks, bullying police, crazed gun nuts and animal-hating bourgeoisie. Nearly everyone has some hurt in their past — either hurt visited upon them, or worse, hurt they’ve caused.
One incident has enormous emotional repercussions for both Babe and the apes he meets in the tiny hotel around which the film revolves. In one the film’s many Rube Goldberg-esque ballets of chaos, Babe takes part in a clown show at a children’s hospital, but accidentally causes a disaster, doing ruinous damage to the set, the hospital, and Fugly Floom (Mickey Rooney). Later, in the film’s finale, Babe disrupts a fundraising event for the very hospital he nearly burned down earlier on.
Babe is arguably to blame, and he immediately understands the gravity of what he’s done, but it’s orangutan Thelonius who most directly takes on the guilt of his eventual death. “I tried to wake him,” he says, staring at the ambulance taking away his former master. “But he wouldn’t wake up.”
Thelonius’ companions, chimpanzees Bob and Zootie, have an even bleaker outlook. They speak almost exclusively in grim platitudes, exhibiting a borderline nihilistic outlook on life. Hardly surprising, coming from characters who’ve spent years in hiding, and in servitude to their clown master Fugly. Babe’s arrival causes a rift in the apes’ established order of things, with Thelonius declaring his only purpose is to be eaten. Subsequently, the chimps attempt to get Babe out of their hair by sending him to be killed by pack of murderous dogs, setting off a new chain of guilty consciences.
“A murderous shadow lies hard across my soul.”
The most vicious of those dogs, the Bull Terrier (Stanley Ralph Ross), is introduced as a villain, but he experiences the most elaborate of epiphanies. Chasing Babe along the city’s Venice-inspired canals, in an unlikely homage to the late Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, he ends up suspended by his own chain, dropped face first into the canal.
As all the other gathered animals watch him drown in silence or turn away, it’s only Babe, full of empathy and compassion, who reaches out to help the creature that moments earlier had pushed him nearly to, the narrator intones, “the moment of his annihilation.” The terrier is changed by his near-death experience and rescue, verbally atoning for the violence he’s wrought. The event turns him into Babe’s most ardent supporter.
The apes’ betrayal of Babe is never mentioned again, but their staunch, silent support of Babe after his near-death experience speaks louder than any apology. These characters understand they did wrong, and become markedly less outspoken against Babe afterwards. Perhaps their shame, their inability to communicate, prevents them from speaking up and apologising. One only needs look at their dialogue to see the pain in these characters’ lives:
“All you got is this actual nowness. The past is gone, and as for the future?”
“[City life]’s all illusory. It’s ill, and it’s for losers.”
“It’s a dog-eat-dog world, and there’s not enough dog to go around, so you look after number...whatsie. Get my drift?”
Babe wages war against this philosophy with the weapon of kindness. Simian and canine alike fall in line with a regime of clemency and acceptance that Babe, through sheer force of will, brings into effect. All these animals, most of them strays, are starving and suffering from profound psychological issues. Babe solves their collective food crisis through communism, essentially, doling out food to everyone — even the apes — with the Bull Terrier acting as enforcer. No looking after “number whatsie” here; the new benevolent dictator is Babe, the sheep-pig!
Babe: Pig in the City forces its likely young viewers to engage with these concepts and more. The film touches, to various degrees, on death, self-loathing, abandonment, distrust, and even suicide. The audience isn’t coddled, and the film doesn’t talk down to anyone. We are, all of us, subjects to unbearable emotions, and Pig in the City is a rare film that more or less encompasses all of them. It’s grim stuff at times, even evoking the Holocaust at one point, but it’s always turned around by simple acts of decency, from helping a dog to his feet to feeding all the dogs.
“I’d like to offer up a solution that I feel confident you’ll all respond to. Whatever the pig says, goes. Anyone hostile to the notion?”
Babe: Pig in the City’s messages ring clearer than ever in today’s digital age, in which we are trained to viciously defend ourselves on all fronts, admitting flaws in public or atoning for what we’ve done wrong is seen as a sign of weakness, and snark is a shield. Much like Miller’s next live-action film Mad Max: Fury Road later reiterated, the Babe sequel teaches us that vulnerability isn’t just okay, it’s a virtue.
James Cromwell shows up again in the film’s final shot to say “that’ll do, pig,” not just as a throwback to the original Babe, but because forgiveness isn’t something you can ask for, but something you can be given. Many characters in this film have reason to ask for forgiveness, but none of them do. They simply admit their wrongdoings to themselves and others, and endeavour to improve their ways from then on. Much of the film’s communication goes unspoken — or inferred, as with Cromwell’s catchphrase — but nearly all of it reflects and radiates from Babe’s unique willingness to talk about how he feels and get the work done.
A nuanced and exceptionally strange story about empathy, atonement, forgiveness and decency might not have been what audiences craved in the stabler 1990s, and indeed, Pig in the City was a box office flop upon release. But in today’s environment of Twitter feuds, hate movements and wall-building, it feels absolutely vital. Critics and audiences have responded enthusiastically to the Paddington films’ lighter exploration of similar ideas — just look at the cries for Paddington 2 Oscar nominations this year - but Babe: Pig in the City’s doesn’t fluff the pillow. There’s weight to the hope, and struggle. The story set “a little to the left of the twentieth century,” might just hold some important lessons for the twenty-first.
Andrew Todd is a Montreal-based writer seen at outlets like Polygon, IGN, SlashFilm, Gameplanet, The Spinoff, and Birth.Movies.Death., where he is Gaming Editor. He also makes movies under the Mad Fox Films banner and is an enthusiastic patter of cats.