Like most kids, my earliest trips to the cinema were mostly to see the latest Disney animation. By the age of five, however, my parents had clearly endured enough Alan Menken songs to last a lifetime, so deemed me mature enough to experience my first live-action release: Babe. As you might expect, the film struck an immediate chord; I loved seeing real animals talk, thought some of the supporting characters were absolutely hilarious and generally found the whole story quite moving. Of course, having recently been disappointed with The Land Before Time, I’ve since come to realise that I valued some truly awful films in my youth. But as I was happy to discover, Babe really is one of the all-time family greats.
Directed by Australian filmmaker Chris Noonan, who shares a screenwriting credit alongside Mad Max’s George Miller, Babe was the sleeper hit of 1995. Based on Dick King-Smith’s acclaimed children’s novel, it’s a warm-hearted anthropomorphic fable avowing that we can all do anything we set our minds to. After being won by Farmer Hoggett at a local village fair, orphaned piglet Babe finds himself adopted by a family of sheepdogs. Initially intended as the Hoggett’s Christmas roast, the pig inadvertently escapes the slaughterhouse by displaying an aptitude for herding sheep. Far from conventional, however, Babe insists on using good manners rather than force in order to assemble Hoggett’s dim-witted ewes. As the film enters its final act, Hoggett becomes so impressed by the pig’s performance that he decides to enter him in the National Sheepdog Championships, where he must beat the odds to be crowned winner.
Re-watching Babe, the first thing that struck me was just how well the special effects have stood the test of time. While I didn’t quite appreciate their brilliance as a child, I now see why effects house Rhythm & Hues won their well-deserved Oscar. Without a doubt, their lasting endurance is largely due to the filmmakers’ audacious use of animatronics, puppets and actual animals since it meant that much of what appears on screen was photographed for real. This is a stark contrast to today’s production processes, which often rely too heavily on blue screen and digital animation. Indeed, you need only watch the 2006 version of Charlotte’s Web to see how quickly the over-use of CGI can date a film.
That said, credit must also go to the talented cast of voice actors who really bring the creatures to life. Christine Cavanaugh, best known as the original voice of Chuckie Finster in the Rugrats television series, gives a particularly well judged performance as Babe, conveying just the right amount of innocence and gallantry without ever coming across as mawkish or clichéd. Additionally, James Cromwell gives the performance of his career playing the terse Farmer Hoggett who slowly finds himself besotted with the pig. He may only speak a total of 171 words throughout the whole film, but it’s Cromwell’s interaction with the various man-made creatures that make them appear all the more believable.
Yet for all its excellent visuals and first-rate performances, Babe’s greatest asset is its highly assured screenplay. Crucially, it’s fast pace and seemingly effortless string of gags will ensure that neither child nor adult will start bustling with boredom. One of the funniest sequences sees Babe and Ferdinand the duck attempt to break into Hoggett’s bedroom in a bid to steal his alarm clock. Neither being especially dexterous, they wreak havoc by spilling paint, smashing a handcrafted doll’s house and getting in a brawl with a rather malicious cat. Superbly written and edited, it was nice to be reminded that not all family films need to be conceived in the same haphazard manner as Madagascar 3, which bombards viewers with a seemingly endless series of explosions and high-octane chases.
Aside from proving to be just as funny as I remembered, Babe is also still a deeply moving film. Certainly, there’s one particularly tense moment when the pig is almost shot after being wrongly suspected of murdering some sheep. Furthermore, characters are constantly reminding us that all animals have their place in the world: the dogs tend the sheep, the cows produce milk, and the pigs become pork. This then clearly sets up the consequences should Babe fail to win the Sheepdog Championships, making it all the more satisfying when he eventually puts in flawless performance. Indeed, I defy anyone of any age who says they didn’t get shivers running up their spine when Hoggett utters those immortal last lines: “That’ll do, Pig. That’ll do.”
So, after more than fifteen years, Babe still remains a triumph of modern movie making. Its visual effects are still as believable as they were in 1995 and it boasts excellent performances and a sparkling script. All in all, well worth a watch for those who loved it as a child or even those now with kids of their own. That said, I do have one word of warning: don’t let its brilliance compel you to revisit the shoddy sequel. One’ll do, pig. One’ll do.