He's brave and bright, good-natured and ambitious, naive and vulnerable. All in all, he's probably the most winsome orphan to appear on the screen since Freddie Bartholomew impersonated David Copperfield 60 years ago. To be sure, Babe is a piglet, but hey, these days you take goodness where you can find it--and resolutely deny whatever snooty qualms anthropomorphism raises in you.
His tale is simple. Farmer Hoggett wins Babe in a raffle, then leaves him to fend for himself in the barnyard. A motherly sheep dog adopts him, a fatherly sheep dog growls dubiously at him, and a kooky duck gets him in trouble. But Babe wins respect, animal and human, when he drives off some sheep poachers, in the process gaining his first sense of vocation: he'd like to herd sheep himself. The dogs think he's too nice a guy for that line of work. But the sheep, tired of being nipped and woofed at, take a shine to him because Babe speaks politely to them and treats them with respect. He's sort of a liberal humanist on trotters, capable even of the odd, soulful thought about mortality, and a welcome addition to a public life largely given over these days to swinishness of a less exemplary kind.
One would like to think that Babe's surprise success at the box office is a tribute to the good cheer with which its eponymous hero reminds us of our better selves. But it also has the enchantment of an extended magical illusion--91 minutes of wondering how they did it. Mostly, it would seem, with a lot of patience. Producer and co-writer George Miller (of the Mad Max films) bought Dick King-Smith's children's story, on which the movie is based, nearly a decade ago. Co-writer and director Chris Noonan worked six years to bring it to the screen. The $25 million production seamlessly blends computer-graphic images (mostly of the creatures talking), animatronic doubles (for the facial expressions real creatures couldn't do) and live action supplied by 800 oinking, barking, baaing animals. "It had the logistical difficulty of a big action movie," says Miller, who claims his intimately scaled film is the biggest, most complicated Australian production ever.
He and Noonan credit much of its success to veteran animal trainer Karl Lewis Miller--"a genius," the director says, at bringing out the character of his charges. Miller and his staff raised 60 pigs by hand to gain their trust. It took 26 weeks to educate the first batch, by which time they had outgrown their optimal cuteness; the training was eventually shortened to 13 weeks. In all, 48 pigs appeared onscreen as Babe.
"You don't train a pig like you do a dog," says Miller. "You can train them to sit, but not by command." Still, the animals' ability to hit their marks never failed to amaze Noonan. His set, he says, "worked musically, rather than chaotically." Adds producer Miller: "We never once got jaded. As in all good allegories, you get a lot of bang for your buck." Now, it seems, he and his colleagues are going to be rewarded with a lot of bucks because they refused to bang audiences over the head with their effects, their moral or their own cleverness. It may have been complex to make, but their fable shines with the classic virtues of the form--surface simplicity, seductive imagery, gently instructive resonances.
--With reporting by Andrea Sachs/New York