Saturday, February 7, 2015

Neglected Gem #71 – Babe: Pig in the City

Those who went to Babe: Pig in the City in 1998 – George Miller’s sequel to his great 1995 Babe – to see another naturalist’s adventure set on the Hoggett farm had their expectations upended. Miller and his co-writers, Judy Morris and Mark Lamprell, clearly had no interest in repeating the achievement of the first film. Though Pig in the City begins with a farm-wide celebration of Babe’s sheep-herding triumphs, within the first few minutes Farmer Hoggett (James Cromwell) is confined to his bed in a cast and a neck brace following a nasty fall down a well – a consequence of a miscalculation on Babe’s part about how best to help “the boss.” Then the bank threatens to foreclose on his property and Hoggett’s beloved pig-faced wife Esmé (Magda Szubanski) hatches a plan to enter Babe in a fair, which requires an international plane trip, and takes Babe away from all of his farm companions, the familiar supporting cast of the first Babe (as well as, of course, Hoggett himself). Mrs. Hoggett’s scheme is set off course when a drug-sniffing customs hound at the airport decides to show off for Babe’s benefit and gets the boss’s wife detained for dope smuggling; by the time customs clears her she and Babe have missed their connections. With no imminent flight available to return them home, they trudge over to the only hotel in the vicinity that welcomes pets. But circumstances conspire to separate Esmé and Babe. First their suitcase and then Babe himself are kidnapped by a family of chimps on the floor below – and one solemn, laconic orangutan, their Uncle Thelonius. They perform with the concierge’s Uncle Fugly Floom (Mickey Rooney, in a wondrous, absurdist Keatonesque cameo), a dilapidated vaudevillian who’s been reduced to entertaining in the children’s wards of hospitals. Then Esmé gets into more trouble with the law (don’t ask). Like Babe’s stint in Fugly’s act, it’s only temporary. But the separation is enough to throw Babe into the cold city of Metropolis, where animals who have been set loose by their humans are as likely to starve as not, and where the prevailing spirit is – if you’ll forgive me – dog eat dog.

Fans of the first Babe may be unwilling to see their modestly heroic pig, with his pure heart and his mucus-clogged wisp of a baby voice (supplied, once again, by E.G. – i.e., Elizabeth – Daily), forced to handle the dangers of the gritty city. Of course, Babe, whose animals were continually in danger of being cooked in Mrs. Hoggett’s oven, wasn’t exactly a sanitized portrait of the relationship between beasts and humans. (By way of analogy, the critic Michael Sragow in his rave review of Babe justly invoked James Agee’s short story “A Mother’s Tale,” about the fate of cattle in a carnivorous society.) And Pig in the City’s production designer, Roger Ford, has gone in the opposite direction of most movies about innocents caught in the urban jungle: rather than rendering Metropolis generically, he’s made it multi-allusive, a charming collage of metropolises, with the Eiffel Tower, the Golden Gate, the Empire State and the Hollywood sign sharing a crowded fairy-tale landscape behind the hotel, which stands alongside a Venice-like canal. (The trio of singing field mice we remember fondly from the first picture, who have stolen a ride in Mrs. Hoggett’s threadbare suitcase and whom Miller charges once more with reading the chapter titles and providing dizzy, tinkly-voiced musical interludes, pay tribute to this new setting with a chorus of “That’s Amore!”) Pig in the City is even better than its predecessor. It tells a story that brings Babe’s Dickensian virtues (and the first film’s very slightly burlesqued Victorian-nursery narrative style, again presented in voice-over by Roscoe Lee Browne) out of the countryside and into the lonesome city with a mixture of pathos, farce and terror, adventure, fantasy and circus spectacle. After seeing Babe, I thought that Miller, the Australian filmmaker who had earlier directed the Mad Max pictures and the John Lithgow episode, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” in the Twilight Zone film, was one of the most gifted visual raconteurs working in movies. After seeing Pig in the City, I decided he must be a genius.

By exposing Babe to the dangers of the city, Miller and his co-writers aren’t out to make him tumble from innocence; he learns it’s his mission to tease out the heart that rough times have obliged these urban animals to conceal in self-defense. The simian family who are Babe’s introduction to life in Metropolis aren’t really cruel exploiters, but gypsies who, with meager resources at their disposal, are accustomed to using others less sophisticated in the ways of the city for their own survival. Zootie (voiced by Glenne Headly) at first seems blurry and wasted, and her hipster husband Bob (Steven Wright) comes across as slick, like a carny shill. But then we see them in the role of caretakers for the smaller chimps, including their own twin babies. Thelonius (James Cosmo) has a long, cadaverous face and wears a green waistcoat, but he isn’t sinister; the more time he spends on screen, the more melancholy we sense in his almost silent watchfulness. When he and the other animals in the house are impounded after a phone call from snobbish, fastidious neighbors, and he has to pose naked for a mug shot, he’s so dazed with humiliation that when Babe stages an escape, he doesn’t react right away; then, reaching for his soiled dignity, he insists he isn’t dressed and slowly pulls on his suspenders.

Bob and Zootie literally throw Babe to the dogs – guard dogs – to create a diversion while they spring a jar of jellybeans from a local store. (Their thieving is mitigated by circumstances: Fugly has had a heart attack and landed in the hospital, where his daughter, their landlady, played by Mary Stein, is watching over him; the hotel has been deserted by its humans, and the animals are famished.) Babe makes a sweetly misguided attempt to herd the guard dogs, but they chase him through the neighborhood, and try as he might he can’t elude one murderous pit bull (Stanley Ralph Ross). This sequence, which is partly shot from the air, is a marvel of choreography and design: Busby Berkeley meets M.C. Escher. Miller uses pauses – silences and held shots – for poignancy: the pit bull winds up tied up in his own chair and suspended over the canal, and then he sinks. The ensemble of hotel animals (which include a choir of cats, a pair of comically mismatched dogs, and a half-blind hound named Flealick, voiced by Adam Goldberg, who’s hooked up to a toy cart) has gathered to watch, along with a variety of neighborhood strays. When the pit bull hits the water all they can do is gaze sadly as the city seems to take its toll of one more of their ilk. But an intertitle reminds us that “The Kindest Heart” is in attendance. Babe calls on his ingenuity to save this half-drowned dog who was ready to tear him to pieces a few minutes earlier. His heroic gesture not only wins the pit bull’s devotion but puts him immediately at the head of this motley crew of outsiders – my favorite is the dyed pink poodle (Russi Taylor) who sounds like Blanche DuBois – who present their own stories and abuse and abandonment and beg him to help them. That’s how the hotel becomes a temporary haven for all the strays in the neighborhood. Their paltry supper consists of Bob and Zootie’s ill-gotten jellybeans, which – at Babe’s suggestion, enforced by the still-powerful pit bull – are distributed democratically. (Even the unfed goldfish gets one and burbles her watery thanks.)

The scene where employees of the local pound invade the hotel and make off with the animals is both startlingly lyrical and a heartbreaker; it really does resemble something out of Dickens, with animals substituted for Dickens’s beloved abused children. The humans approach the pets with food and toys to distract them; when the pink poodle thinks she has a chance to be pampered, she rolls over and begs, while one of the hotel dogs murmurs in disgust, “Don’t go there.” The combination of his cynicism and disapproval and her pathetic appeal for love makes the moment simultaneously hilarious and devastating. Sometimes, as in this case, Miller so complicates the emotion of a scene that you have to remind yourself you’re watching a fantasy about a gallant dog. When Flealick’s cart is hit by a car and he’s knocked onto the sidewalk and almost dies, Miller shows him cavorting in doggie heaven – chasing birds under an idyllic sky – until Babe shakes him tenderly back to life.

The movie’s climax features Magda Szubanski swinging back and forth across a ballroom in Uncle Fugly’s balloon suit in an effort to save her husband’s precious pig from a hotel chef who’s been eyeing him maliciously. (It’s as much her mission to bring Babe back safely to Farmer Hoggett as it is Babe’s to save the farm – and, later, to save his new friends.) This deliriously beautiful comic ballet, in which scores of blue balloons tumble to the floor and engulf the characters like immense soap bubbles, can make you dizzy with awe and laughter. Babe: Pig in the City is utter enchantment. It earns its place next to E.T. and The Black Stallion and The Wizard of Oz and more recently Hugo – that is, among the most inspired storybook movies ever made.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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