Director: Chris Noonan
Cast: James Cromwell, Magda Szubanski, Christine Cavanaugh, Miriam Margolyes, Hugo Weaving
Watch Babe online in the UK: Netflix UK
Do you remember the 1990s? Mark does. On Fridays, he flashes back to the golden decade of our childhood. From family-friendly films to blockbusters we shouldn’t have been watching, get ready for a monthly dose of nostalgia, as we put down our VHS tapes and find out whether the 90s on Netflix are still Live & Kicking.
For the time it was released, Babe is a really lovely anomaly. At a point where babies and animals had been anthropomorphised with celebrity voices in the unaccountably popular Look Who’s Talking trilogy earlier in the decade, this adaptation of Dick King Smith’s book The Sheep-Pig probably seemed like a relatively safe bet to the studio.
Produced and co-written by George Miller, it ends up performing a highly watchable tightrope act between kindness and darkness that’s rarely managed so well by other studio films. It’s a film in which “mild peril” includes the distinct possibility of death, but also a film whose sweetness is its most memorable and endearing quality.
Selected for a “guess the pig’s weight” contest at a local fair, Babe (voiced by the late, great Christine Cavanaugh) is the runt of his mother’s litter. When champion sheepdog breeder Farmer Hoggett (James Cromwell) wins him, there’s immediately an inexplicable bond between the pair.
When the pig comes back to Hoggett’s farm, the boss’ wife, Esme (Magda Szubanski), starts making plans for Christmas. Although the animals on the farm seem sure that the little pig is destined for the dinner table, Babe discovers an unexpected talent for herding sheep that might just save his bacon.
Filmed in Australia, the film takes place in a kind of timeless pocket universe. It does for the countryside what Paul King’s Paddington movies do for London, creating a kind of grounded fantasy world that’s funny and peculiar without being excessively quirky. There are real stakes to overcome, but there’s an irrepressible optimism all the way through it.
It’s a technical marvel, too, with an extraordinary combination of visual effects from Rhythm and Hues, animatronics from the Jim Henson Workshop, and real-life animals being used to create the barnyard characters. It’s the marriage of different techniques with the cast’s performances that make this sing.
From Roscoe Lee Browne’s narration to Hugo Weaving and Miriam Margolyes as Babe’s surrogate parents, the vocal cast are routinely excellent. But the on-screen standout performer is the Oscar-nominated James Cromwell, who brings enormous sympathy to his relationship with the creature he calls “Pig”.
Farmer Hoggett is not painted as an especially soppy or eccentric character, but for all his stoicism, he really cares for this daft animal. Cromwell’s subtly pained expressions, as he contemplates getting rid of Babe in any way is a crucial part of the film’s strange magic. It’s the story of a man and his pig and the emotional investment in that really sneaks up on you by the time of the brilliant climax.
There’s a whole other story going on between the animals, so here’s a warning for meat-eaters. You may remember that there’s a passage of the film set near Christmas, but don’t forget that it’s from the perspective of the farm animals. Your dietary preferences are entirely your own, but you wouldn’t watch Okja before sitting down with the family for Christmas lunch either.
Still, the film was beloved upon release and it deservingly bagged seven nominations at that year’s Oscars, including Best Picture. Fast and funny, Babe is a really unique family-friendly fable that captures the timeless quality of King-Smith’s novel with excellent visual effects and even better performances.
And finally, as we wrap up for 2018, here’s an open letter to Netflix. All we want for Christmas is for the berserk, Miller-directed sequel, Babe: Pig In The City to be streaming again. Please let us know when you’re streaming it and we shall immediately convene for an emergency session.
Next time on The 90s On Netflix…
“So, if no one’s seen the Grand High Witch, how are you sure she exists?”
Babe is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.