Back in 1995, a family flick about a talking pig learning to herd sheep and avoiding the slaughter proved to be an unexpected critical and audience darling. Using cutting-edge talking-animal CGI now easily surpassed by your average Instagram filter, Babe made $254 million at the box office against a production cost of only $30 million. And the sequel seemed to practically write itself (as well as juicy checks for the studio). But 1998’s Babe: Pig in the City—brainchild of director/writer/producer/Australian George Miller—was not the gently orchestrated animal parable that parents had every right to expect. Not even close.
Let’s cut to a relevant bit of information about Miller, then to the spoiler. George Miller is the famously capable director of the magisterial Happy Feet cartoon penguin movies. He is also the creator of Mad Max and is the man behind the frenetic 2016 Tom Hardy reboot that Charlize Theron stole from England’s most prominent mumbler. On a perhaps thematically related note, BPITC begins with the titular pig accidentally, severely, and graphically maiming the kindly farmer who looks after him.
Now, let’s be clear: Everything works out. The farmer’s injury results in the nearly-killed farmer’s wife, Esme, taking Babe on a trip for a paid celebrity-pig appearance meant to financially rescue the farm. Babe and Esme are separated at the airport by a phalanx of brutal proto-TSA officers (not making this up), and a lost Babe finds his way to a secret urban boutique hotel for castaway animals. Long loopy plots and subplots eventually involve the destruction of the hotel, which is in part a hotel for dogs but should not be confused with the hotel for dogs in 2009’s Hotel for Dogs. Don’t worry, BPITC does have a happy ending! Everybody is fine, except for Mickey Rooney, who dies off-camera. More on him later. We’ll get to that happy ending, promise.
First, let me assert that this is a good movie. Sure, BPITC was a commercial and critical failure, but the critics were mistaken. They wanted continuity with the first movie, and instead they got an arguably perverse mirror-image of Babe’s pastoral nicety. But the perversion works. What you take away from a contemporary viewing of BPITC is not just darkness, but the weirdness, which occasionally morphs into surreal menace that, in turn, boils over into slapstick, leading inexorably to hyper-real violence. The film stays with you. Especially now.
Filmmakers have gotten very good at packaging violence as “action” in family movies. Set pieces are eye-poppingly complex, visceral, and expensive, and not just because that makes them fun to watch. All the whizzbang shit obscures emotional jeopardy. The frenetic is never dramatic, which is why impalings and choppings and explosions and beheadings rarely threaten the PG-13 ceiling. Audiences are inured to cartoon violence. The violence in BPITC is somehow less cartoonish and more nerve-wracking despite principally involving talking animals.
Why does BPITC’s comparatively mild violence hit harder than more elaborate cartoon violence in today’s entertainment designed for 12-year-olds? Because BPITC has the courage of its convictions, which are, in no particular order:1) Actions have consequences, like when you maim your farmer friend, or burn down a clown show (that’s coming up).2) Humans are either angelic protectors or diabolical murder machines.3) Never trust monkeys who wear human clothing.
In fact, the film is so (emotionally, not literally) visceral it got slapped with a PG rating, which was a bad thing for a movie aimed at all ages in the more puritanical era of 1998. Lots of edits—often for violence, if you believe this apocryphal list of cuts—got BPITC back to G. Even so, George Miller did manage to squeeze in a Mad Max-style vehicle stunt with a crippled Jack Russell terrier getting dragged through the city by a truck.
You remember Mickey Rooney, who dies? Before he dies, he’s the silent uncle of the animal hotel’s proprietor and dwells there in his own suite. He is also a clown of the Vaudeville school, and he has a troupe to back up his act. His troupe is a collection of monkeys who all wear human outfits: a thieving capuchin named Tug, chimpanzee couple Zootie and Bob, Bob’s brother Easy, and orangutan majordomo Thelonius.
(Oh, Thelonius! Orangutans have that mythically sad and wise face, and the knowing, weary gaze. Pair all that with a dark green velvet three-piece suit and the mellifluous voice of Scottish character actor James Cosmo? What a creation.)
Unfortunately for your kid who loves monkeys, these monkeys are all evil. Or certainly not moral. They are introduced after Tug the capuchin steals Babe’s farmer’s wife’s suitcase, and Bob, Zootie, and Easy refuse to return it. Thelonius is summoned to rule on the issue, and he dismisses Babe as nothing more than a “food animal.” For a moment it appears the monkeys might actually eat the movie’s protagonist, which wouldn’t have been kosher at all.
Instead, they deceive him into joining Mickey Rooney’s clown act in return for a clearly specious reward. However, Babe’s incompetence as a performer leads to the fiery destruction of the elaborate set and all its props during a gig at a children’s hospital. Mickey Rooney and Thelonious look on with blank-eyed grief as the only life they’ve ever known burns to ashes, because Babe. This is what causes Mickey Rooney to break down back at the hotel, collapse, and be carted away by paramedics to die of a broken heart and maybe smoke inhalation off-camera.
This is just one of many times the movie toys with the emotional allegiance of viewers. Don’t feel too bad for the monkeys though. They get their revenge by duping Babe into entering a junkyard infested with attack dogs, which leads to a chase and the movie’s most famously disturbing image: A pit bull hangs by a chain connected to a bridge. Only its head is submerged. It twitches, slowly drowning as other animals look on, stone-faced.
Naturally, Babe rescues the pit bull, who in gratitude becomes the enforcer for Babe, who assumes the role of benevolent despot. This is a kids’ movie after all.
I’m recapping this long string of events from monkeys to pit bull in order to illustrate that the moral algebra of Babe: Pig in the City is not for the faint of heart. Kids accustomed to more straightforward protagonist-antagonist dynamics are likely to be quite confused as to who they should root for and against.
Everything said here about why this movie is so weird, and so different from its cinematic peers, is what it makes it so striking, and yes, so good. If kids can handle the challenges it presents, Babe: Pig in the City is a great way to break kids out of the formulaic entertainment trap of conventional family movies. Many contemporary adults who saw the movie as kids remember it vividly, how striking and different this movie was, which is a movie-watching experience worth capturing and recreating where we can.
Of course it’s also fun to spring a movie like BPITC on your children when they’re not expecting it. I’d put the optimal viewer’s age range at seven—or perhaps a worldly six—just so young viewers can fully appreciate the novelty of what they’re seeing (my kids age seven and ten both pronounced it “good” but “weird”).
There is maybe one scene of true mature pathos toward the end of the movie that still makes me sad just to think about it—Thelonius, humiliated and disrobed in a city pound, insisting that all the other animals wait for him, mid-escape, so he can put his elaborate velvet suit back on. “I’m not dressed,” he mutters pathetically while snapping his suspenders. He’s like the King Lear of washed-up orangutans.
Moments like that and all the rest contribute to why Babe: Pig in the City has become a cult favorite long past its predecessor, which in retrospect faded to a light, forgettable trifle. One hundred percent of BPITC is aimed at both kids and adults watching with them—if anything goes over a kid’s head, it’s not because of a wry side gag thrown in for the adults to chortle over. BPITC is from the rare school of kid movie that lets kids be taken a little bit seriously when it comes to appreciating discomfort, abandonment, fear, danger, violence, terror, and loss, while letting kids contrast that with joy, relief, friendship, inspiration, and hope. And all this takes place on a small scale with small stakes that still feel immediate, urgent, and true from a kid’s perspective.
RATING BABE: PIG IN THE CITY
All ratings are out of 10 (with 10 being a good thing).
8 – An off-kilter gem unlike any kids’ movie outside the Tim Burtonverse.
7 – Everybody loves talking animals!
5 – Most of today’s kids will have never heard of either Babe movie, but most parents will be dimly aware of the first one.
10 – Babe is in moral or physical danger for 95% of the movie.
Junior Revisitor Rating
7.5 – “Weird … but good” and “medium thumbs up.”