Written by George Miller & Chris Noonan
Directed by Chris Noonan
I recall this movie being huge when it came out, and when looking at the box office returns and critical reviews, it truly was. Babe was a phenomenally popular film, one of those rare family films that didn’t pander to its audience and told a layered, thoughtful story. Most people probably just remember the cute little pig and his sweet voice, but there is a lot of heavy, dark material. The film doesn’t shy away from touching on the cruelty of factory farming and the eating of meat. With the talented work of filmmakers George Miller & Chris Noonan on the script, they never become didactic, though, making sure the story is always entertaining.
Babe (voiced by the late Christine Cavanaugh) is an orphaned piglet chosen as a prize in a county fair. He ends up being won by the stoic farmer Hoggett (James Cromwell), who doesn’t quite know what to do with a pig being a sheep farmer. Hogget’s wife imagines fattening the pig up to eat him eventually, but Babe becomes the adopted child of sheepdog Fly (voiced by Miriam Margolyes). This draws the ire of her partner Rex, the lead sheepdog (voiced by Hugo Weaving). Babe eventually becomes enamored with the sheepdog’s job and starts to show prowess at herding them, albeit by kindly asking instead of scaring them. Hoggett begins to see that there is more to this little pig than he initially thought.
When analyzing Babe, it’s easy to get caught up in the cuteness and lighter elements. But there are some profoundly deep themes running through the narrative, particularly when it comes to prejudice and the loss of innocence. The crucial second act moment where Babe learns what the “purpose” of a pig is, to be eaten, serves as a moment where things get pretty dark. However, the little pig, knowing that the world sees him as something to be killed and consumed, chooses to not accept this pre-determined life. Instead, it steels him to take on the role of a sheepdog and prove to the world that pigs cannot be reduced to a single label. The movie doesn’t soften the blow of this revelation, and I suspect kids then and now will be moved to tears at certain moments in this picture. Babe is a film about navigating how to still believe in people even when you have the dark truths of the world revealed to you. It would be excusable for Babe to hate humans after learning this fact and run away, hiding from what he’s been told is his fate.
I am a massive fan of material made for kids that doesn’t ever talk down to them. I teach elementary school and the last week of school (not this year sadly) we typically have a movie day where kids across the grade level can choose which teacher’s room they want to go. You see the expected line-up of pictures with Sing!, Minions, Trolls, etc. I always try to pick something within that G/PG rating that still presents the students with challenging material. I’ve shown The Secret of Nimh, The Fox and The Hound, and My Neighbor Totoro in past years. I usually don’t get a ton of kids because they go with name recognition. The students who end up in my room typically do so because they want to spend time with me, but year after year the ones who watch my film choices always end of loving them, and I hope I’ve opened up their minds to look beyond the bright & flashy movie of the month. I expect Babe might be my pick for next May because I think it’s a picture of such rich depth that it deserves to be introduced to a whole new generation of children.