When a certain little piggie goes to market, he’s bound to cause a stir. “Babe: Pig in the City” will create quite a squeal because it rates as a fully worthy sequel to 1995’s sleeper $250 million global grosser; the follow-up will not disappoint its legion of fans despite the inevitable diminution of the surprise factor. There is plenty of fun in this cinematic menagerie, consummate screen magic and a series of well intentioned messages that sidestep the cloying and saccharine. The $80 million pricetag and post-production jitters to the side, it all adds up to a bounty of entertainment and robust commercial returns from all revenue troughs.
Rumors — like pigs with wings — of technical glitches and a dark, frightening tone have stalked the highly anticipated film in the weeks leading up to its release. Neither doomsaying factor is in evidence in the finished movie; likewise, scattered reports of the sequel taking on a Fellini-esque quality that wouldn’t translate to the masses proved utterly groundless.
New chapter picks up pretty much where the young porker was last seen. Having earned his stripes as a champion sheep “dog,” Babe experiences his 15 minutes of fame, which spawn myriad invitations, including one to visit the Queen of England. Back on the farm, life resumes. But a freak accident — prompted by Babe’s inquisitive nature — results in farmer Hoggett (James Cromwell) falling down a well and being unable to work.
The perforce domino effect ensues. Hoggett’s well meaning, zaftig wife Esme (Magda Szubanski) fails mis-erably at maintaining the spread, and faceless bankers arrive with a notice of foreclosure. The solution to the financial plight is to accept an invitation, with a generous fee attached, for Babe to demonstrate his herding prowess at a big fair far, far away. En route, however, the plan is derailed when Babe strikes up a conversation with a drug-sniffing dog that results in authorities detaining Esme as a suspected trafficker.
Stuck in the big city, they are directed to a rooming house where pets are welcomed despite city ordinances. Still, the menagerie of dogs, cats and monkeys is fraught with the sort of urban peril neither the porker nor his tender have previously experienced or initially quite know how to navigate.
Director and co-writer George Miller subtly alters the ambiance of the sequel by more than just shifting from a rural to a big city setting. Whereas the first film focused on the constant threat to Babe’s winding up as a festive dish, new entry stands as a metaphor for the anxiety of metropolitan life, where largeness and technology have stripped away the layers of humanity. Babe and Esme are the proverbial rubes cast adrift in this jungle, with their innate goodness allowing them not only to swim among the sharks but, eventually, to lead the pack to more noble pursuits. It’s a classic tale whose antecedents include “L’il Abner” and “Crocodile Dundee.”
At the same time, enough remains the same to provide the pic with the comfort of seeing a good friend again. The setting may have changed, but Babe is still the decent, caring individual one has grown to rely upon.
After a rocky start, the Flealands Hotel comes to feel like a safe haven. The capacious and warm environment belies the more sinister and cruel aspects of the fictional Metropolis. Left unattended, Babe watches as an impish Capuchin monkey steals into the room and makes off with Esme’s suitcase. He follows the thief to another room where a family of tough-minded performing apes reside, and only by agreeing to appear in their act, headlined by the human Fugley Floom (Mickey Rooney), is the prospect of getting back the case (and an appearance fee) extended.
The first big city life lesson the porker learns is that people’s — or monkeys’, words are not necessarily their bond. This is especially true among the sub-strata known as actors. However, the troupe’s chicanery winds up backfiring. Shepherding the naive porcine hero into a life-threatening situation on a phony pretext puts Babe face to face with two ferocious guard dogs.
But in the Keystone Kops-style chase that ensues through the streets of the city, the tables are turned and the pit bull winds up an almost certain drowning victim. While the other animals of the quarter stand back helpless or disinterested, the porker saves the dog from a watery death. The unselfish act has its reward in the pit bull extending his friendship and serving as the enforcer in a community of “excluded” pets in which Babe rises as benevolent monarch.
The salient appeal of the first “Babe” and its sequel is the creation of a unique animal kingdom that mirrors human society. Pic straddles the two worlds, invests the non-humans with emotional qualities and flips the image by turning the more traditional cast members into well observed Hogarthian creatures with the bestial qualities more closely associated with their pets. Szubanski, Mary Stein as the Flealand owner and Rooney play their roles at perfect pitch.
Beneath the serious underpinnings, the filmmakers concoct a fun house atmosphere in which often outra-geous actions can flourish. Miller and his army of technicians and animal specialists invent crazy quilt contrap-tions that spin off in weird trajectories when set in motion. The piece de resistance is a climatic tug of war at a benefit for a medical society invaded by the creatures and the dogged Esme Hoggett. Its observational humor might best be described as ham or wry.
The seamless mix of real and animatronic animals is a testament to the magic of the movies and the vision of “Babe’s” creative team. As with the original, it’s the rare instance where one is conscious of the difference, largely because one is caught up with the characters and story. And, as with the returning singing mice, there’s a purpose behind the patently caricature creatures.
“Babe: Pig in the City” is tour de force filmmaking that masks its achievement in a good ripping yarn. The dulcet tones of Roscoe Lee Browne on the soundtrack provide the calming assurance that the danger in the roller coaster experience will indeed come to rest safely. The addition of the human factor just strengthens the weave that’s characteristic of the most enduring movies.