Tuesday, August 4, 2015

At 20 Years Old, "Babe" is Still Proof That Talking Animals Can Be Great Protagonists

There is a common reaction that you would get if you talked about director Chris Noonan's Babe. Your friend will look at you as if you were crazy for suggesting that a film about talking animals could be anything more than family fodder. The film remains the last G-rated live action film to be nominated for Best Picture, and thusly will earn your friends, no matter how skeptical, a rowdy round of laughter. However, 20 years later, there's still some magic to the story about a pig who found that differences weren't always a bad thing and that following your dreams against adversity could pay off. Babe is a film that set the bar for talking animal films, and hasn't really been topped since.

In 1995, there were two movies about lovable talking pigs: Babe and Disney's Gordy. While the family entertainment factory's film was released first, it was this film from Australian protégés that won hearts and would gross $254 million at the box office. Those numbers aren't lying. Neither is the fact that the screenplay was co-written by the unlikeliest of sources: Mad Max director George Miller (who would direct the sequel Babe: Pig in the City three years later). The story of overcoming adversity was already overcoming its odd production in which animals took central focus of the film. Its legacy may be buried under false ridicule, but its seven Oscar nominations don't lie. The film itself is a gem for a lot of reasons.
The most noteworthy is that this is both a family film and an activist tale. With titular pig Babe (the late Christine Cavanaugh) losing his family to slaughter, the tale already starts off darkly and obviously. Over the course of the running time, Babe would become a sympathetic party - a revolutionary juxtaposition for a blockbuster. With many associating pigs' fates as processed meats, the story goes about to suggest otherwise. Babe becomes a sheepherder who wins at the state fair. The final lines "That'll do pig, that'll do" are a commentary on not only overcoming adversity, but proving the usefulness of animals beyond the dinner plate. During the film's release, activists handed out flyers for vegetarianism to patrons. Some even consider this film to have inspired young audiences to find an alternative eating lifestyle.
Considering that propaganda films have been around for decades, the idea of an anti-meat film isn't all that shocking. The likes of PETA and The Smiths with "Meat Is Murder" have preached the message for a long, long time. It is more the deliberate focus towards children, who likely didn't pick up on the themes. Despite potential complaints that the filmmakers shouldn't attack children with messages, there is  far more interesting fact at play. This isn't just one of the finest allegories. It is also a more deliberate tale of overcoming adversities and being true to who you are.
The reality is in the dynamics. Babe wants to be a sheepdog. Ferdinand the duck wants to be a rooster. These are two of the major contradictions that the film focuses on. In both cases, the characters are ridiculed for their beliefs, yet eventually grow to become accepted. They break out of expectations to become something more than what their species is limited to. The story, in some respects, is very straightforward and mostly relies on the homely farmers, played by James Cromwell and Magda Szubanski. Thankfully, the film is rich with personality and hijinks that suit the best of family films. There's even a certain depth of maturity, with a lot of philosophical lines talking about unity and acceptance. For a production that is about talking animals, it wallops a punch both politically and emotionally.
It could also help that the visual effects were done by Rhythm & Hues and Jim Henson's Creature Shop. Considering the lack of ability to train animals to speak coherent dialogue for 90 minutes, let alone a minute, the work remains the film's highest achievement. Rarely does the voice work seem problematic, which only enriches the appeal of Babe and his many creatures. Even the fact that there's puppetry and special effects in this movie are stounding. It isn't often seen and the final product looks impressive with all things considered. While Australia would have more revolutionary special effects with Peter Jackson's Weta, the talking animals are rather impressive. Just consider its competition in the 20 years since, which has predominantly been decent at best. There is a reason that the film notoriously beat Apollo 13 for Best Special Effects (its only Oscar). While both are technically impressive for different reasons, talking animals haven't been done so impressively before.
For a film that is all about a talking pig, the film's success is still astounding beyond its Best Picture nomination. It is a commanding tale about being different. It is an entertaining family film that works on a basic visual level. It is even an anti-meat metaphor that is both effective but not distracting for those looking for a simple happy film. Speaking as this genre of film has been made a lot since, it is most impressive that nobody has quite mastered the appeal to quite the success. Films with pigs aren't usually this complicated (save for "Charlotte's Web"), but somehow this is the little one who could. It is proof that films, no matter the demographic, can challenge the medium and get a strong reception. All it takes is someone who cares to put in the time and effort.

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