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Revisit: Babe

Revisit: Babe

Babe is a 90-minute antidote to the poison of tribalism.

A piglet with an “unprejudiced heart” is spared the slaughterhouse and plopped into a bucolic farm early into Babe, a rare classic of children’s cinema not associated with Disney’s phoenix-like rebirth in the early ‘90s. This ingenious Australian-American collaboration became an unlikely critical and commercial smash in 1995, earning a quarter-billion dollars in box-office receipts worldwide, garnering seven Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture) and winning the Oscar for Best Visual Effects. And yet, to the extent that Babe is remembered, it’s merely known as The Talking Pig Movie TM.

This, of course, is a misnomer. Every beast in Hoggett’s farm, not just our title porker, speaks with anthropomorphic fluency. But that one-dimensional moniker sums up the depressing legacy of an extraordinary film. Babe’s cinematic perfection – a nimble tightrope-act that crisscrosses joy and pathos, comedy and tragedy, whimsy and mortality – endures. Its central theme, that curiosity and kindness should be the standard for all social exchanges, resonates more than ever today.

Babe is a 90-minute antidote to the poison of tribalism. Our protagonist gets an earful about “the way things are.” Some species (like dogs and horses) are utilitarian and the rest (fowl, mostly) are chewed, swallowed, and digested. Babe falls into the latter cohort. But he transcends his own lot by becoming an expert sheepdog, and a total skeptic. Sheep are dumb (so say the dogs). Dogs are bloodthirsty (according to the sheep). On his own, Babe discovers both are wrong and worthy of dignity. “Some Pig,” in the parlance of a different (beloved) story, overturns cynical conventions and quietly triumphs in the end.

Babe remains a singular and elegant fable, astonishing at every turn and gorgeous throughout. Director Chris Noonan adapts Dick King-Smith’s source novel with an assist by George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road), who would go on to take Babe into weirder, surrealistic places. This film, however, is firmly grounded in a verdant countryside teeming with real animal actors and state-of-the-art puppetry, which blur together. These two methods of visual storytelling are seamlessly integrated and indistinguishable to the modern eye.

Technical achievements notwithstanding, Babe endures as a moral lodestone, a compelling argument for vegetarianism. By giving livestock interiority, the film calls into question the ethics of meat-eating. James Cromwell swore off animal flesh after starring in Babe. I, too, adopted a plant-based diet for half a decade following my first viewing. I’ve since reverted back to carnivorous urges, which makes Babe all the more difficult to revisit.

This indelible tale mirrors William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience in reverse. On the Hoggett farm, Babe learns the reality of death and embraces life with an adoptive mother, a Border Collie named Fly. Experience is thrust against his snout. Babe becomes a groundbreaking sheep-pig because his unrelenting innocence makes him a four-legged champion, a porcine prodigy, an oinking hero.

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