Babe: Pig in the City

The critical and commercial success of Mad Max: Fury Road has definitely reignited interest in writer/ director George Miller's career. For the most part this is probably just going to lead to younger fans exploring the original Mad Max trilogy from the late seventies / early eighties, but it might also lead to people exploring his deep cuts. And there is no deeper cut in his filmography than 1998's Babe: Pig in the City.

This is not because the film is out of print; it isn't. This is not because the film is particularly weird; it has it's odd touches, but it isn't exactly Eraserhead. No, it's mostly a deep dive because it didn't make a huge impression when it came out and in retrospect it doesn't make sense that the guy who has spent most of his career making gritty apocalypse movies in Australia would take a time out to make a family film about a sheepherding pig.

At least... It doesn't make sense on the surface. When you actually watch Babe: Pig in the City you can see how the film expresses many of the same themes as his other more mature films. Don't believe me? Well, let's look at a few specific examples.

I don't want to belabor this point too much because other people have already argued this point quite capably, but Miller is very interested in how artificial families form. For most of Fury Road's first half its two leads at are loggerheads, and it is unclear if the selfish Max is willing to sacrifice his own self interest to help Furiosa escort some former sex slaves to freedom. Of course Max eventually comes around to Furiosa's side, but Miller lets them grow together organically, and as a result their bond feels earned. Similarly, Babe the talking pig starts off as a total outsider when he arrives at the City, but he is such a pure hearted soul that he ends up winning everyone he meets over to his side, including a family of thieving chimps and an angry guard dog. It might seem odd that a pig would become buddies with such an unlikely group of animals, but the naive little porker is so naturally generous that you can totally understand why everyone would fall in love with him.

It is worth pointing out that both of these movies - and indeed, all of Miller's work - are genre works that try really hard to have actual heart. By that I don't just mean that they want you to be emotionally invested in their lead characters (although of course they do), I mean that they want you to be able to empathize with their villains, too. At first all of the War-Boys who are trying to steal the sex slaves back from Max and Furiosa seem to be interchangeable thugs, but eventually we see that they are just scared little boys who were brainwashed by a cult leader; by the end of the movie we see that it's possible for them to change into good people, and we see that there's a younger generation of War-Boys that needs to be rehabilitated before they, too, grow up to be monsters. Similarly, as the animals that were standing in Babe's way start becoming his friends the audience begins to sympathize with them more and more, and we begin to understand that they were acting out of self defense, not malice.

However, I do want to make it clear that at no point does Miller let these stories stray from their genre format. Fury Road is first and foremost an action film, and it never takes too long of a break from the action; all of the character beats either take place at the edges of the story or are expressed through the action. Babe also stays true to it's format: it is consistently a lighthearted movie that is meant to make kids laugh, and it expresses it's moral about how we need to see the world through other people's eyes with winking dialog, not heavy handed moralizing. The fact that both movies manage to express such warm sentiments about our need for community without making too big of a deal about it is all the more impressive when you think about it; they seem like such over the top movies that it is kind of surprising how subtle they actually are.

Speaking of over the top...

One of the more obvious similarities between Babe: Pig in the City and Fury Road (or any of the Mad Max movies for that matter) is that they are obviously indebted to old Looney Tunes cartoons. In Babe's case that influence is pretty blatant, since it is about a talking pig who spends his time getting into trouble with other talking animals in a city that is built on whimsy more than concrete, and as such it has obvious plot and tonal similarities to a Porky / Bugs / Daffy cartoon. In contrast, Mad Max doesn't immediately seem cartoonish - in fact, it's so much more grounded than your average action extravaganza that the opposite is actually true - but nonetheless, the film's many chase scenes do have a sense of outrageousness and slapstick that's heavily indebted to Warner Brothers.

This similarity becomes more obvious when you compare the conclusions of the two movies. For most of Babe: Pig in the City our titular pig has been separated from his owner, Mrs. Hoggett, and they are finally reunited at a big charity function that is taking place in a two story ballroom. However, Hoggett doesn't merely reach down and scoop up her pet - no, she jumps off the balcony, gets her clown-suspenders entangled on a rod, starts bouncing up and down in the air, and then begins chasing her scared pig while hiccuping around the room. It's a sequence that has all the physical silliness and impossibility of a Roadrunner cartoon - and it's not too far off from the end of Fury Road, where Max and Furiosa are being threatened by War-Boys who are hanging off of extremely flexible poles that are attached to the beds of speeding trucks.

Obviously the two films use these setpieces to different narrative ends - Babe uses its shenanigans for pure comedy while Fury Road uses them to highlight how out of control the situation is getting - but from a purely visual standpoint they are brothers in arms. And that doesn't just apply to the action scenes: it applies to the little touches like the art direction, which tries to evoke not-quite-realistic-but-totally-plausible worlds, and the casting, which tends to emphasize people with odd or extreme faces. Both films are ultimately using their distinctive visuals not just to dazzle the eye but to help you suspend your disbelief that such over the top antics could actually occur in our non-animated world.

Finally, both films are notable for their interest in who has power and how they got it. This is an explicit theme in Fury Road, which is, after all, about refugees trying to escape the clutches of an evil warlord. But Babe Pig in the City is also interested in these questions, since they pop up in at least two memorable scenes, both of them starring dogs.

The first scene is the one the kicks off the plot: Babe is in a crate at an airport waiting to go through customs when a drug sniffing dog approaches him and strikes up a conversation. The dog tells Babe that whenever he barks he gets treats, and to prove his point he starts making a ruckus. This immediately sets the cops on edge and they detain Mrs. Hoggett until they can search her luggage from top to bottom. It's a comic scene that is played for laughs, but it does tell you something about Miller's dim view of power - a stooge who didn't understand what he was doing nearly ruined Mrs. Hoggett's life because he was totally willing to falsely implicate her in a serious crime if it meant he got an extra snack.

The more important scene comes later in the movie. I have already mentioned that Babe wins the loyalty of a guard dog, and I want to elaborate on their relationship. At first the guard dog is trying to kill Babe because he thinks that Babe is trying to break into the store that he's guarding. (Babe isn't; the mischievous chimps are.) The dog starts chasing Babe and nearly kills him several times, but Babe gets away when the dog's chain catches on a bridge railing, tipping the dog over into the water where he starts to drown. Instead of running to safety Babe turns around and rescues his attacker. Afterwards the dog pledges totally loyalty to the sweethearted little pig, and whenever someone else says something bad about Babe the growling dog is quick to quieten them down.

Miller's movies are consistently ambivalent about the nature of power, because they suggest that the mechanisms of power remain the same regardless of whether they are being used by  good people or monsters. Although that guard dog does become a nicer character after he starts taking orders from Babe he is still very much the same ruthless creature he always was  - it's just that he's now channeling his aggression in a more positive direction because he's taking orders from a nicer leader. The same is true in Fury Road, which (spoiler alert) ends with a noble character taking the Warlord's spot as leader of the War-Boys - an ending which suggests hope, but doesn't promise it. After all, the mechanism that allowed the evil warlord Immortan Joe and his ilk to ruin the world are still very much in play, even if they are now in the hands of a person who is more interested in creating a sustainable and equitable society.

I don't want to misrepresent Babe: Pig in the City by comparing it so extensively to Fury Road. The two movies are completely different experiences. Babe is sweet while Fury Road is bleak; Babe is gentle where Fury Road is violent; Babe is funny where Fury Road is intense. But I did want to compare the two movie as a way of arguing that Babe is worthy of your respect, because it has just as many genius touches as Fury Road, which is currently at an astonishing 98% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Actually, if II wanted to be totally honest I would argue that Babe is more of a work of genius than Fury Road. Sure, it isn't as visually impressive, but its symbolism is a lot less heavy handed, and I generally enjoy humorous movies more than I do bleak ones. Of course, your mileage will probably vary, because Babe is still a children's movie, and it's totally reasonable for an adult to prefer an adult movie. Either way, the point is that no matter how unlikely it might initially seem, these two very different movies actually have a lot in common. If Fury Road is the first George Miller movie you've ever seen... Well, I envy you, because you have a marvelous world of discovery ahead of you. Now get to it!

Winner: Me

Babe: Pig in the City on IMDB