All I remembered from Babe: The Gallant Pig is an image of a dead sheep splayed out on the back of a truck with clumps of dark red wool around its neck. That’s the image that has been plastered into my head for 15 plus years.
I haven’t watched Babe since then, so I had little memory of this film going in. And I suppose that’s a good thing; there’s no nostalgia to cloud my vision. All I know is that I must have liked it. I remember that as a young boy my dad would sing me “If I Had Words” when I was sick just like Arthur Hoggett did when Babe was sick.
When I saw the film, bits of nostalgia leapt back to me. I almost teared up with each “If I Had Words” and every “That’ll do, pig.” My younger self had reconnected with my present self, even though the two never really separated.
That is the power of this film. It truly is an instant classic. In the words of E. B. White, Babe is “some pig”.
But before I gush on you any further, let me tell you about the actual film. Babe was released in 1995 and was directed and co-written by Chris Noonan with George Miller, director of the original Mad Max trilogy along with this year’s Mad Max: Fury Road, as producer and co-writer. Babe tells the story of our titular pig, voiced by the late Christine Cavanaugh, who winds up in the provincial farm of Hoggett, played by James Cromwell. After trying to fit in, he is inspired to herd sheep like a sheepdog. Hoggett eventually finds potential in him and decides to enter him in the sheepdog trials.
From this simple premise, the film carries a wide variety of moods to engage audiences of all ages. It goes from the warm, whimsical inside of Hoggett’s house during the opening credits to the cold steel of the industrial farm to the energetic county fair to the quiet, provincial farm. The film can be quiet, stealthy, funny, scary, dark, and warm all at the same time. And all the narrative peaks and valleys along with the simple plot allows the film to have all these shifts in moods without alienating the viewer or making them lose track. And it’s all accompanied with a sweeping musical score at just the right moments, composed by Nigel Westlake, complete with music from 19th century French composers and references to Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite.
There are some genuinely dark themes to be had, from very subtle critiques on the meatpacking industry to the aforementioned dead sheep. And those themes work because of their contrast with the more lighthearted ones. Many filmmakers don’t realize that children can handle a lot more than they think they can, and it’s great to see a film that takes children as seriously as adults. That being said, there’s still one joke involving Babe peeing, a group of squeaky-voiced mice, silly, dancing farmers and one very, very subtle sexual innuendo where a duck who thinks that he’s a rooster remarks that he tried and failed to help the hens make eggs. But in a world where movies like 2003’s The Cat in the Hat (you know, the one where the Cat in the Hat was scary?) are full of sexual jokes and farts, Babe is immensely refreshing. It’s like if E. B. White was proof-read by George Orwell, and it’s brilliant.
The titles at the beginning of each chapter broke a bit of the immersion, especially when paired with the high-pitched mice annunciating each title. The titles do create some foreshadowing, along with being an obvious homage to the book the film is adapted from, written by Dick King-Smith. But I think that they could have done away with them, or at least take away those annoying mice.
Visual storytelling is also put to great use throughout the film. When Babe’s mother was sent out to slaughter, his siblings didn’t go, “Gosh, Babe. It looks like our mom’s going to become a pork chop sandwich!” You see a truck come by with the name of the meatpacking company emblazoned on it.
There is a narrator, along with plenty of exposition, but the visuals and narrative complement each other. Before the scene where Babe’s mother was put in the truck, it was first said that the truck takes the pigs to heaven, and that Babe and his siblings would one day do the same. The sooner they get fat, the sooner they go. That scene would not have been as chilling had Babe had not said that.
All of these narrative devices engage the viewer, but they would be nothing without the wonderful story backing them up. Babe, being a pig, is lead to believe that he has no purpose other than being eaten. And when he tries to herd the sheep, he finds that he isn’t aggressive enough to herd them like his Border collie adopted parents. But then he finds that by using his gentle nature, he can herd the sheep. It’s an inspiring tale of finding your own purpose in life despite all the odds along with the power of kindness.
The story is also supported by the stellar acting of the cast, with great writing to bring out their believable characters. All of them are memorable and lovable, which makes me wish that some characters got more development. The duck who thinks that he’s a rooster doesn’t really change at the end of the film. However, the focus is where it needs to be, and I can’t complain about that.
Even though the human actors are all fantastic, the animals are the ones that steal the show. The film employs both real animals and animatronics in order to make Babe and company come alive. Even after 20 years of CGI (Toy Story was released the same year as Babe was), the special effects still hold up. Babe really does look like a real pig, and it makes me wish that more animatronics were employed in movies today, especially with all of the advances in technology. I would have like it if the other animals received the same treatment as Babe did; they look a lot more robotic compared to him. If fact, the movie does show it’s age in a few ways. In one scene, Hoggett’s son-in-law gifts him with a fax machine in an attempt to “modernize” him.
When I saw Babe, I didn’t feel like I was watching a children’s film, or even a family film. I felt like I was just watching a film, and a damn good one at that. After all the lukewarm children’s films that have come out in recent memory, it was great to once again see a film that took audiences of any age seriously. It doesn’t see kids as mindless chimps and doesn’t see parents as walking wallets, bending to the will of their whiny child. It respects the intelligence of kids and treats them as equals, while acknowledging that it also needs to be entertaining for parents as well.
Even after 20 years, Babe: The Gallant Pig still holds up wonderfully to this day. It’s superb storytelling, characters, and messages all guarantee that this film remains a classic for many years to come. My parents showed the film to me 15 years ago, and I’ll be showing it to my own kids many years from now.
I have nothing left to say about Babe. In the words of Hoggett, “That’ll do pig, that’ll do.”
The festival showed only one screening of Babe and there’s no way to stream it on services such as Netflix, but have no fear as you can probably track down a copy in some sort of store that sells movies. Who knows, you may have a dusty VHS tape in the basement of your parent’s house.