At first it might seem strange that the same dude who brought this summer’s intense fever dream Mad Max: Fury Road to the screen also directed August’s Movie of the Month, Babe 2: Pig in the City. In fact, any quick glance at George Miller’s list of feature films could leave you scratching your head, but his range of work is not nearly as disparate as it may initially seem & there’s something special about Babe 2: Pig in the City in particular that helps make the connections between his films all the clearer. Much like how Babe was an unlikely choice for a prize sheep herder in the first film that bares his name, Pig in the City is an unlikely, but oddly effective gateway to understanding Miller’s oeuvre as a cohesive whole.
It’s probably safe to say that the Mad Max franchise is the property most closely associated with Miller’s name. It’s at the very least where Miller started the strange path of his career. The first Mad Max film created a charmingly handmade & genuinely dangerous-feeling post-Apocalyptic universe that’s been retooled, reinvented, and redefined in each of its three subsequent sequels. Pig in the City may not immediately resemble the Australian wasteland depicted in the original Mad Max film, but its decidedly urban landscape is populated with the same kind of wild, frothing-at-the-mouth cretins that terrorize what remains of Mad Max‘s small town victims. The world of Pig in the City is similarly lawless & cruel, with its own uncaring authority figures & gang leaders holding their boots to the necks of the poor & defenceless.
The similarities in their world-building aside, it’s not until the second Mad Max film that the franchises connections to the Babe sequel become explicit. Just as Miller tossed out the “That’ll do” philosophy of the first Babe film out the window when he made its off-the-wall sequel, he abandoned much of the first Mad Max film’s aesthetic with Road Warrior & each subsequent entry to the point where their only connective tissue was a titular performance by Mel Gibson. And even that connection was severed with Tom Hardy’s headlining performance in Fury Road. The sequels also link up closer to Babe 2‘s central idea that solidarity & communal sharing are the only way to survive life’s seemingly pointless onslaught of cruelty. The hippie dippie gasoline hoarders of Road Warrior, the feral tribe of children in Beyond Thunderdome, and the runaway sex slaves of Fury Road are all echoed in the gang of talking animals Babe assembles in Pig in the City simply by being pure of heart & wanting to share the wealth.
Of the Mad Max sequels, it’s fairly safe to say that the one that most readily resembles Pig in the City would be Beyond Thunderdome. Beyond Thunderdome is a strange bird of a film, initially creating a strange corporal-punishment based society (headed by Tina Turner, because why not?) whose titular thunderdome arena is used to settle any & all major disputes. That world is largely left behind when the film goes beyond those Tina Turner-ruled boundaries (for some ungodly reason) and devolves into a version of a Peter Pan & the Lost Boys dynamic much more closely related to Spieldberg’s Hook than it is to any of the preceding Mad Max content. Pig in the City somehow touches on both halves of Beyond Thunderdome, both recreating the bungee chord-aided thunderdome battles in its climactic ballroom scene & further easing Miller’s catalog into the realm of children’s media. On a less superficial, but also less easily-recognizable level, Babe 2 is echoed in the unhinged, live-action cartoon of Fury Road. Both films have a fevering, relentless intensity to them that not only compliment each other, but combine to exemplify the detached-from-reality heights that tinge nearly all of Miller’s film, even when that absurdity is relegated to the margins.
It’s a little more difficult to pinpoint Pig in the City‘s similarities to the films Lorenzo’s Oil & The Witches of Eastwick, but far from impossible. Both Lorenzo’s Oil & The Witches of Eastwick are at the very least filtered through the visually wild eye Miller overindulged in with Fury Road & Babe 2. They look especially strange for their genres (the medical drama & the rom-com, respectively) and they both have a relentless never-look-back-or-question-the-rules pacing to them that takes the audience hostage for their intensely eccentric runtimes. This lack of restraint is wicked fun in The Witches of Eastwick, a surprisingly cruel mix of black magic & sexual energy that always catches me off guard as one of my favorite movie-watching experiences. However, that same manic energy is absolutely brutal in Lorenzo’s Oil.
A drama about a child dying of ALD, a disorder that devastates his mind & body, Lorenzo’s Oil is a deeply angry film that bucks the bureaucracy of scientific research that slows down the chances of survival for individual patients in favor of longterm studies that could potentially help future generations. This is not at all unlike the cold, heartless bureaucracies that keep Babe’s gang & owner down, but it’s all the more depressing in that the movie is based on a true story & the on-screen pain has more readily recognizable real-life pain attached. Babe 2 may be occasionally depressing in an arresting way, but it has nothing on the relentless emotional wrecking ball of Lorenzo’s Oil’s dissent into the madness that strangles the parents of a child dying of ALD. Pig in the City‘s connections to The Witches of Eastwick are much more fun; both films feature magical worlds that play like distorted versions of our own and, more artificially, fill their screens with brightly colored balloons in their more surreal moments- pink in Witches & blue in Pig the City. Lorenzo’s Oil offers very little in means of escape, instead using its surreal undercurrent to create a hard to stomach look at the real-life devastation.
On the opposite end of the silly-serious spectrum, George Miller’s Happy Feet films could not be further from the emotional destruction of Lorenzo’s Oil. Pure, unadulterated candy, the Happy Feet franchise can, however, feel just as difficult to stomach. From the first film’s opening scene, when a CGI penguin seductively performs a karaoke version of a Prince song with a come-hither look in her eyes, I wanted to puke, or at the very least give up on watching the two films to come. I instead bravely soldiered on through both Happy Feet pictures, finding very little respite from the sexy penguin karaoke Hell that persistently broke my spirit in both. For every pleasant element in play (Matt Damon & Brad Pitt’s domestic partnership as a pair of krill, for instance) there was twice as much content to hate (Robin William’s politically uncomfortable caricature of a Hispanic penguin immediately comes to mind).
You would expect that the only other children’s media Miller was involved in would most closely resemble his Babe sequel but there really isn’t much else connecting the films outside genre & vague political overtones. In both the Happy Feet films & Pig in the City, Miller takes a spoonful of sugar approach to political philosophizing. Just as Babe 2 sneaks a positive representation of communism in action in its talking animal adventure plot, Happy Feet (much less covertly) hides its environmental activism behind a shroud of cute animated penguins & some of the worst karaoke ever committed to film. Besides the political Trojan-horsing I don’t see much else connecting Happy Feet to Pig in the City. Even more so, I find Happy Feet to be an outlier in Miller’s ouevre at large, both in terms of quality & content. It’s a pretty terrible stain on an otherwise perfect record.
George Miller is a strange success story in terms of typical auteur career paths. His films wildly vary in terms of genre to the point that he initially seems to exist outside the auteur theory entirely, but once you squint a little closer, his personal touch shines through in each disparate property. As unlikely as it sounds, Babe 2: Pig in the City not only serves as a Rosetta’s Stone of understanding Miller’s career in its glorious entirety, but it also exemplifies the dreamlike intensity he’s still bringing to his films in his 70s. Fury Road felt like the energetic work of a director attempting to prove his worth, but that same energy has somehow been consistent since his 1979 Mad Max debut & already reached its fever pitch in Pig in the City. Let’s hope the runaway train of his imagination leads to a ton more of completed projects in his remaining years, even if that means suffering through the pain of another Lorenzo’s Oil or (more painful yet) Happy Feet one more time around. He’s given us more than enough joy to earn a few of our tears.