Brandon: Nearly four decades into his beyond bizarre career as a director, George Miller recently wowed audiences by breathing new, absurdly energetic life into the long dead Mad Max franchise with the film Fury Road. When I reviewed Fury Road in June I echoed the praise of its “surprisingly satisfying feminist bent for something so thoroughly violent” and called it “one of the best action films released in years” & “an incredible technical feat stuffed to the gills with impressive practical stunts & confident art design”. Although the idea of a rebooted 80s franchise is generally a dreadful proposition these days, Miller was smart enough to throw out nearly everything he had already accomplished with Mad Max & start over with renewed enthusiasm, creating one of the defining films of his career. This shouldn’t be surprising, though, since Miller had already pulled off this very same trick twice before: once with The Road Warrior and, much more surprisingly, once with Babe 2: Pig in the City.
The first Babe film is a perfect, small-scale children’s media charmer in which a clever pig is raised by farm dogs to herd sheep, much to his delightful owner’s surprise. In the words of the farmer (played deftly by James Cromwell), “That’ll do.” Miller was a producer & screenwriter for the first film, leaving the director duties to a largely unknown Christopher Noonan. With the sequel Pig in the City, Miller takes over the director’s chair & furiously tosses the “That’ll do” attitude to the wayside. Pig in the City is a bizarre fever dream of a film, a terrifying spectacle populated by nightmarish clowns, talking animals, cops, pig people, and all sorts of various creeps & reprobates. Leaving the quiet farm of the first film far behind, Babe ventures into the cold bureaucracy & literal dog-eat-dog viciousness of the big city and through the sheer virtue of his pure little pig heart becomes the de facto leader of a small band of abandoned animals starving for affection . . . and a decent meal. The world Babe navigates here is cruel & unusual. An over-the-top set design & constant barrage of heartless obstacles never stops twisting the knife on just how out of his element & against the odds our little swine hero is in The Big City (a strange amalgamation of every big city imaginable contained in a single, impossible metropolis).
Britnee, I’m 28 years old and I’m petrified of this movie; I can’t possibly imagine what it’d be like if I had seen it 20 years ago, when I was in the range of what I assume the target audience would’ve been. Do any moments stand out to you as particularly nightmarish or does the entirety of Pig in the City just sort of all blur together as one extended scare?
Britnee: I watched the first Babe film in theaters back in 1995, so all I could remember was that it starred a talking pig that humans couldn’t understand. As a die-hard Charlotte’s Web fan, I didn’t get into the Babe craze all that much. This allowed me to watch Babe 2: Pig in the City with a fresh mind, and it was, in fact, a horrifying experience (in a good way). Pig in the City was such a strange film that I didn’t expect to be all that outlandish. Yes, it’s based on talking animals, but that’s not something unusual for children and family films. It’s everything else about the film that makes it a huge magical nightmare. The city streets’ whimsical buildings (sort of like Paris meets the Shire), the vulgar attitudes of the city’s animals, and the warped, bizarre human characters are examples of why this nightmare is so “magical.”
There were a couple of standout parts that were particularly terrifying for me, such as the farmer’s brutal near death experience in the well, the dirty old clown with his thieving gang of talking monkeys, and the junkyard dog hanging and drowning from a cobblestone bridge. The film was really like a mild horror film for adults that kids could enjoy as well.
Brandon, it seemed as though most of the humans in this film were more terrifying than the talking animals. What are your thoughts on that? What human character was the scariest?
Brandon: First of all, there’s a definite dichotomy the film’s trying to set up between the coldhearted big city people and the small town weirdos who “get it”. When the farmer’s wife first arrives in The City with Babe in tow, she’s met with the cold sting of bureaucracy. Mistaken for a drug dealer at the airport, she’s physically assaulted, misses her connecting flight, and is left stranded with nowhere to stay for days. To contrast the humorless big city folk that derail Mrs. Hoggett’s life, the movie also presents a network of colorful weirdos with small town backgrounds (and, often enough, pig-like snouts) who help her out by providing a safe haven for her & her animal while she’s stranded in The City . . . that is, until she’s arrested following a Rube Goldberg-esque mishap and finds herself once again trapped in the unforgiving entanglement of bureaucracy.
The thing is that both the big city folk & the network of weirdos are all disturbing in their own ways. There’s a *shudder* clown in the film that performs for the amusement of the deathly ill & an innkeeper that provides a safe haven for animals & pet owners in an unforgiving environment that are both technically sympathetic characters plot-wise, but look so strange & daunting that they’re a terror to behold. The entirety of Pig in the City has a child’s funhouse mirror POV that makes virtually all adults feel terrifying, whether they’re helpful or not. This child’s POV is even reflected in the wardrobe. The big city meanies are all dressed in drab greys, while the weirdos have a much more colorful palette, but both groups are horrifying in their own way. If I had to single out a most terrifying human character, I’d probably settle for a clown named Fugly, a part silently played by Mickey Rooney, as a default. The idea of Mickey Rooney in clown makeup is terrifying enough on its own, but as presented here, decorated with fire & confetti, it’s even worse than you’d expect. Fuck that clown.
Britnee, in a lot of ways the human characters in the film feel a lot less . . . human than the animals. This is especially apparent in the portrayal of a family of chimpanzees & their dignified orangutan leader Thelonius. Do you think Thelonius was a “good guy” or a “bad guy” within the film, or was his role more complicated than that? How does the question of his character’s goodness or badness compare/contrast with the oversimplified morality of other members of the cast, both human & animal?
Britnee: Thelonius was so strange. At times, I had difficulty deciding if he was good or evil, and to be honest, most of my memory about Thelonius in the beginning of the film is a bit fuzzy. It wasn’t until the latter half of the film that I really started to pay attention to him. I don’t think he was ever a “bad guy,” but more of a self-absorbed grump. I think that he was a “good guy” all along, he was just stuck in a crappy situation and his inner goodness didn’t show until the latter half of the film. One scene that is so vivid in my mind is when the animals are attempting to sneak out of the pound/laboratory. The animals finally get the chance to escape to safety, but Thelonius makes them wait for him to get dressed. As he slowly puts on his fancy attire, he ruins their getaway plan. I wasn’t sure if this was supposed to be a funny scene or if this was to show how egotistical Thelonius was. He doesn’t really shine through as a “good guy” until he saves the life of a baby chimp at the chaotic gala.
It was much easier to determine the good and evil elements of the human characters, but as for the animals, it wasn’t as much of a walk in the park. The human characters had no depth, so it was easy to determine who was “bad” and who was “good.” The animal characters were much more confusing, like Thelonius. The wheelchair pup and a couple of other animals at the hotel were pretty rude, and the street animals were pretty heartless (especially that horrible pink poodle); however, they are all viewed as “good” when compared to the humans.
Brandon, I’m having a hard time with remembering details about all of the animals because the amount of important animal characters was a bit overwhelming. Do you feel that the film focused on too many animal characters? Would the film be better with a tighter focus on only a couple of animals?
Brandon: I actually think it’s the depth of the animal cast that makes this film so rewatchable. I’ll admit that on the first run through, I was a little overwhelmed by the endless parade of personalities. There’s the wheelchair bound Jack Russell, the queer dog couple in the matching sweaters, the operatic room of cats, the reformed bully bull terrier, the tragic Southern belle poodle, the Steven Wright-voiced chimp that strangely reminded me of Michael Shannon for no apparent reason, and the list goes on. The thing is, though, that as exhausting as this list can be in the abstract, the movie deftly makes time for each character to have their “moment”. The Jack Russell terrier has his brief trip to the afterlife. The bull terrier has a turnaround in personality after Babe saves his hide. The queer couple literally comes out of the closet during a police raid, etc. I feel like Thelonius was the most well-developed animal personality in the film in that he had so many moments like this that complicated his character, but the rest of the animal cast helped color the world around him that the movie would be all-too-thin without.
The difference between our views on this aspect might be that I found the animal characters much more empathetic than you seemed to. I think it’s interesting, for instance, that you call the pink poodle character heartless, when I think of her as a tragic Blanche DuBois type whose heart is way too big, if anything. Also, the “gag” where Thelonius’ need to dress before escaping the lab didn’t play for me like a jab at his ego that had made him out to be a cold-hearted figure earlier in the film. It was more or a quietly sad deflation of his dignity to me & helped flesh out just how much pained effort he was putting into keep his chimp & clown family together. I think that’s a lot of what Miller was aiming to say with the film. Each animal may seem cruel or selfish on the surface, but they’re all disenfranchised & down on their luck, essentially fighting over scraps (like a stolen jar of candy, for instance) for survival. It isn’t until Babe teaches them that if they’re kind to one another & learn to share their scraps evenly as a community they all have a better chance of survival that the animals let their defensive guards down & start being kind to one another.
Britnee, how effective do you think Miller’s message about the importance of community over the strength of the individual was in Pig in the City? Do you think the alternating scary & goofy strangeness of the film completely overshadowed the film’s message of the importance of solidarity?
Britnee: Honestly, I think the film’s bizarre nature definitely overshadowed any sort of message that Miller was attempting to put out. Even during scenes where the animals began to be more compassionate, I couldn’t help but focus on all of the twisted happenings. You’ve seen this film multiple times, and I think this could be a reason as to why our opinions differ. Because the film’s strangeness was so overwhelming, I had a difficult time paying attention to anything else. Watching Pig in the City for a second time would probably change a lot of my current thoughts about the film.
You do make an interesting point about how the animal characters were struggling to survive, and Babe was a beacon of light in their hard knock lives. Actually, I don’t think I ever noticed how great Babe was until now. He was just a little pig leaving his simple farm life for the very first time, and even though he was put into tons of terrifying and unfortunate situations, he remained brave. His courage and compassion had an impact on just about every character, and this is more than apparent in the film’s final scenes. Of all the great pigs in film, I think Babe is up there with the best of them.
Brandon: Although George Miller is generally associated with the wanton mayhem of the Mad Max franchise, Pig in the City isn’t nearly as out of touch with the rest of his catalog as you’d expect. There are traces of many of his films lingering in this one, from the bungee chord battle of Beyond Thunderdome to the surreal balloon drop of The Witches of Eastwick to the childish goofery & political ponderings of the Happy Feet films. I’ve slowly come to realize that Pig in the City is far from an outlier in Miller’s career, but more of a gateway film that serves as an unlikely combination of all of his achievements in one aggressively strange package.
Britnee: After reflecting on this Swampchat, I believe there is a lot of heart in this film that I ignorantly overlooked, which is why I really need and want to watch Babe 2: Pig in the City again. It seems that this movie has a reputation for being a little too dark to be considered a children’s film, but I think that it’s a perfect film for children. Real life is nothing like a fairytale, and sometimes you have to make the most of your situation and create your own happy ending. That’s a message that people of all ages can benefit from.
Upcoming Movies of the Month
September: Britnee presents The Boyfriend School (1990)
October: Erin presents Innocent Blood (1992)
-The Swampflix Crew