There’s something special in that taillight. Something, furthermore, that can only be appreciated on a movie theater screen. I imagine kids born in the mid-seventies may have had the same reaction to the flashlights in E.T. — a movie I haven’t seen on a big screen, which could account for the distance I feel from it. Babe, on the other hand, I embraced from the start and have loved ever since. Perhaps that taillight has something to do with it. I’m reminded of my first memory in a theater, watching Aladdin — when Jafar first hypnotized the sultan and the whole giant screen went red. No 3D technology is as immersive as a moment like that. Likewise, when the truck backed into the piggery to take Babe’s mother away from him forever and the taillight pressed in for its closeup, the dark light seared itself into my memory in high definition. I like to think of that moment as the birth of my love of movies. It planted a seed that continues to grow. I now understand the full terror of that opening scene, and the way it’s meant to be contrasted with the idyllic farm that is the film’s main setting.
The story works on multiple levels. I’ve said before that talking animals in movies are basically people. They often show us aspects of ourselves that are distasteful or embarrassing, the silly affectation making those things more palatable. The life of farm animals can be used to illustrate many aspects of human experience (see Orwell, George or White, E.B.), and the opening narration of Babe makes plain that the film is about prejudice. Its main dramatic conflict involves two classes of animal that refuse to speak to one another out of ignorance and hate. When Babe succeeds in getting both sides to listen, first to a déclassé outsider like himself, then to each other, it’s a victory of kindness over brute force. The film’s message to kids is that this kind of reconciliation is possible even for the most stubborn.
But the characterizations in the film are so well-rounded and nuanced that we can just as easily take the animals at face value. Babe solidified in my mind the concept of animal personality types — sheep are stupid, dogs are loyal and loving but potentially vicious, cats are self-absorbed jerks. We certainly recognize these characteristics in ourselves (and notice how sheep and humans alike are spellbound by fireworks in one scene, not to mention the affinity of Mr. Hoggett for his dogs and Mrs. Hoggett for her cat), but the film emphasizes specific details that conflict with a strictly allegorical reading. The morality of slaughtering and eating animals is obviously one of the film’s chief concerns, but perhaps even more stressed is the ethical treatment of animals generally. The film rejects the mechanization and mass production of modern farming in favor of individual care and simple methods. All right, even on that point I can’t help but see the animals as stand-ins for people. I guess I’m biased.
Then again, the ability for a story that hinges on animals interacting with each other to strike a chord with an audience depends on our willingness to see an animal as a type of person. As the title character’s father in Life of Pi says, “When you look into [an animal’s] eyes you are seeing your own emotions reflected back at you. Nothing else.” Our rational minds tend to agree with that argument, and yet we still have pets. The technological achievement of Babe ought to be a revelation to anyone who’s ever talked to a pet. Another film from the 90s, Jurassic Park, is praised for the way its special effects blend models and robots with computer-generated imagery. Babe does the same thing, but it’s arguably even more audacious in its use of those techniques. With Jurassic Park, there’s a certain distance between the audience and the dinosaurs. We feel awe and terror for them, but they don’t become individual characters in our minds. By making the animals the protagonists, Babe dares us to look for the seams. If the talking pig isn’t consistently convincing, the movie doesn’t work. Thrills can be maintained through sturm und drang, but empathy is trickier. The movie asks us to look into these animals’ eyes and see something there. That I always do may only be because of excellent animal training, careful use of special effects, and the Kuleshov Effect, but there’s nothing wrong with that; every movie is some kind of illusion.
The critic Otis Ferguson called Disney’s Fantasia “one of the strange and beautiful things that have happened in the world.” I absolutely agree and believe the statement applies just as well to a movie like Babe, particularly its final sequence. The humor laced throughout the work is as rich as it is offbeat. Early in the film, the deep, soothing voice of narrator Roscoe Lee Browne intones, “The pig and the farmer regarded each other, and for a fleeting moment, something passed between them, a faint sense of some common destiny.” Paradoxically, what makes the line so funny is that this movie treats that idea with the utmost seriousness. Cartoon-like techniques such as irising are used to punctuate the film, and the camera always evidences personality and skill. Consistently beautiful are the colors, whether the orange of magic hour skies or the green of lush pastures. Both the “strange” and the “beautiful” culminate in the movie’s ending. The final scene works either as an arch parody of a sports movie’s climax or as an earnest call for silent reverence in the presence of a miracle. Hoggett’s closing line has entered pop culture, and it haunts the film in the same way that some of The Godfather‘s more infamous lines haunt that film. Even so, its mix of soft-spoken simplicity (“That’ll do, pig”) and reckless artistic ambition (with a beam of sunlight piercing the clouds and landing directly on farmer and pig) sums up the whole film pretty well.
It’s insufficient to see Babe either as just a vegetarian tract or just a fascinating variation on the stories of Mowgli and Tarzan. The best thing about the film is how it makes those two perspectives inseparable. There’s an admirable balance to the film’s portrayal of its heroes and villains. The shining example is Hoggett himself, played with impressive restraint by James Cromwell. No pig in history could ever hope for a greater human ally than Hoggett, but this man is still a farmer. He still slaughters a duck for Christmas dinner. He is still prepared to execute a lovable creature that he believes has killed one of his sheep. (Although it should be admitted this scene is the least believable in the film — it’s almost suspense for its own sake.) The camera, shooting from the animals’ point of view, emphasizes his imposing height and strength. If the animals are essentially human, then he is something else entirely. But at the very least, this movie puts us in the perspective of the oppressed, the poor, the dependent, the servants. And that is a gift.