Unquestionably the odd ham out this summer, “Babe” is a dazzling family entertainment with enormous charm that utilizes breathtaking technical innovation. The Australia-set tale of a piglet who becomes a championship sheep dog is an unexpectedly enthralling story that should win over big audiences. Universal’s task will be to take this pig to market in a major way, but the film has upbeat prospects worldwide if it can just squeeze its snout into the crowded summer season. Apart from the logistical challenge of shepherding a barnyard full of four- and two-legged species through their paces, the filmmakers were confronted with the challenge of making the fanciful saga believable. Director Chris Noonan jumps off the deep end in his approach, relaying the events from the animals’ perspective. It’s done in a wholly unself-conscious manner with a combination of animatronic wizardry and human voiceovers.
Babe’s story unfolds in a series of episodes with intriguing chapter cards such as “Crime and Punishment” and “Pigs Are Stupid.” Fate plays a big part in the title character’s life. His one-way ticket to pig paradise snatched from him by a carnival huckster, he winds up on Arthur Hoggett’s (James Cromwell) farm when the lanky sheep man correctly guesses the porker’s weight at a fair.
The perplexed piglet is taken under the paw of Fly, a Border collie who has just delivered a litter. His adopted mother gives him sound advice concerning appropriate conduct in his new environment. But Ferdinand — a duck who lives in fear of becoming Christmas dinner — preys on his naivete and gets the oinker into sufficient trouble to make him a replacement candidate for the Yuletide platter.
Initially, it’s a bit of a shocker to watch a family drama unfold in which the cast comprises real-life, fuzzy creatures and where humans get the “pet” roles. Nonetheless, you can’t stop watching and are effortlessly absorbed into the drama.
Noonan, who co-adapted Dick King-Smith’s kid lit “The Sheep-Pig” with producer George Miller (who helmed “Mad Max”), basically gives his material a serious bent, though there’s plenty of comic relief. In another setting, this tale of triumph over apparent limitations might be dubbed”Rocky.” It’s an extraordinary story, but so convincingly told, you accept its veracity.
One senses that the filmmakers deserve a medal for patience and stamina.
Miller apparently nursed this project along for seven years and still concluded he lacked the day-to-day focus to marshal the logistical puzzle.
A battalion of trainers aside, directing animals is famously nightmarish. With mechanical creatures thrown into the mix, the degree of difficulty compounds.
The achievement here is a thoroughly compelling story in which the underlying technological razzle-dazzle never intrudes.
“Babe” has a sweet, simple message that sidles away from the sentimental.
It’s a vibrant, modern allegory that attests to film’s power to meld storytelling and technical arts.