Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Hogwash

By Debbie Gilbert

DECEMBER 7, 1998:  Those who fail to learn from their mistakes are doomed to repeat them. Unfortunately, this lesson has been lost on George Miller. In 1981, the Australian director-producer helmed The Road Warrior, one of the most sublime action movies ever put on celluloid. But in 1985, unable to leave well enough alone, he followed it up with a bloated, over-the-top mess called Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.

Same book, different chapter: In 1995, Miller created one of the most delightful family films of all time, Babe – an enchantingly innocent barnyard tale of a little pig who believed all things were possible. But again, Miller thought he could come up with a bigger, better, flashier sequel. The result is Babe: Pig in the City.

There was absolutely no reason for this movie to be made, other than to cash in on the fame of its Oscar-nominated predecessor (and to take advantage of the merchandising opportunities that were missed when the first Babe became an unexpected hit).

As you’ll recall, that movie ended with Babe the “sheep-pig” winning the National Sheepdog Trials. This film picks up immediately afterward, with Babe returning to his hometown as a hero. But almost at once, his “Boss,” Farmer Hoggett (James Cromwell) falls victim to a brutal accident that – inexplicably – seems intended to evoke laughter when the proper response should be horror. With Hoggett disabled, the bank moves in to foreclose on the farm. His plump wife, Esme (Magda Szubanski), comes up with the idea of taking Babe to a faraway state fair, hoping the appearance fee will be enough to pay off the mortgage.

At this point, Cromwell essentially disappears from the screen, and Szubanski takes over the primary human role. She is a deft comic actress, but her chatterbox Esme doesn’t evoke our sympathies as the taciturn Hoggett once did. For much of the film, though, humans are peripheral, with most of the dialogue occurring between animals.

The dialogue goes nowhere, however, because there’s really no plot. Babe is supposed to “save the farm,” but all he does is get entangled in one sticky situation after another. In contrast to the first movie, where Babe was the one who made things happen, here he’s usually a passive observer. Pig in the City tries to be a classic fish-out-of-water story, and apparently the filmmakers thought that putting the little porker in an airport or on an urban street would be inherently funny. It’s not. To provide comic relief in the dull stretches, Miller makes too frequent use of the trio of singing mice. They’re admittedly hilarious – the first two or three times.

What’s striking about this movie is its surreal strangeness, reminiscent of Tim Burton’s work. The mythical city is supposed to be set in no particular time or place, so it contains elements of every famous city: the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, the Sydney Opera House, the “HOLLYWOOD” sign. Automobiles are Fifties vintage, but all the women are walking around on the streets in string bikinis – a bizarrely inappropriate choice for a children’s movie.

Babe and his owner eventually stumble into an outlandish fleabag hotel populated by more animals than people. Some of these creatures are owned by a circus clown played by Mickey Rooney, who – like Cromwell – gets snuffed out after a couple of scenes. The animals basically take over the hotel, and the rest of the film is one chaotic chase after another. There’s even a sequence in which people are tethered to harnesses and go swinging and bouncing across a cavernous room, exactly like in Thunderdome.

Where the first Babe was sweet and gentle, this one veers toward animal cruelty. A chained dog dangles interminably by one hind leg, then slips down further so that his face plunges into water and he slowly drowns. Another dog – already saddled with a canine “wheelchair” – is slung to the pavement in a frightening traffic accident. And dozens of animals are nabbed by jackbooted policemen and thrown into laboratory cages.

But oddly enough, the animals are the only bright spot in the movie – that, and the beautiful cinematography. Miller gets a whole roomful of dogs and cats to cooperate with each other, and he manages to coax eerily human performances from the apes, especially a wise, sad old orangutan named Thelonius. But that’s not enough to make Babe: Pig in the City worth your while. Stay home and rent the original.

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