It’s fairly well established that the Babe franchise is height of live-action, talking-pig children’s media. If you ask someone, “Hey, what was that movie with the talking pig?” it’s highly likely that Babe will be the response. The technical achievements of the first Babe film alone (which include animatronic puppets designed by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop & an Academy Award win for Best Visual Effects), mark it as the height of quality in talking pig media. That sense of movie magic wonder is backed up by a fantastic, effortlessly affecting script (adapted from a 1983 novel called The Sheep-Pig), as well as a intense fever dream of a sequel, our current Movie of the Month, George Miller’s Pig in the City. Babe is an impossibly cute little swine with an angel’s singing voice & a heart of gold that unites even the most disparate of beasts across species lines. In short, he is talking pig perfection.
Of course, being the king of any genre is going to attract some pretenders & Babe has more than his fair share. Starting as soon as the first Babe film’s 1995 release date, there have been multiple live-action piggies looking to wean off some of its swine-adoring audience. I’ve found four pretenders to the Babe throne, all of varying quality. None were fit to shine the king’s hooves, but a couple were at least mildly enjoyable.
The four Babe pretenders are listed below in order of their release dates, hopefully serving as a guide for which ones to avoid in the case that two perfect Babe features weren’t enough to satiate your talking pig needs.
Gordy, the original pretender, is a movie so slick in its Babe-usurping ambitions that it even beat the first Babe film to the theaters by a few months in 1995. Considering the length of Babe‘s production & the high-profile nature of its visual effects vs. the all-around lackluster quality of Gordy, I feel it’s pretty safe to assume that the latter was a mockbuster rushed into production in order to beat Babe to the punch, delivering shoddily-constructed cute pig antics before the true king arrived. Gordy is the most blatant Babe imitator & also one of the least enjoyable. It’s just an absurdly empty picture, relying on a cutesy, seemingly made-for-TV farm life aesthetic complete with line dancing & a honky tonk soundtrack. Even Gordy‘s visual effects pale in comparison to Babe‘s, relying on an ancient, possibly peanut butter-aided Mr. Ed effect to simulate its talking farm animals.
The best thing Gordy has got going for it is its titular piggy, which I’ll admit is a cute little bugger. As the film awards Gordy front-page publicity as a “hero pig” (for saving some rich dude’s grandson from drowning in a swimming pool of all things) & dresses him up in adorable costumes for a photoshoot (as a scuba diver, a professor, a surfer, etc.) it become increasingly apparent that the pig’s natural cuteness is all the film had in mind. As I mentioned in my exploration of the horror film Pigs, there’s a narrative focus on makeshift families that feels oddly ubiquitous in all pig media (perhaps due to the inherent domesticity of farm life) and both Gordy & Babe participate in that angle. Like with everything else, Gordy’s journey to unite two single parent families (including one headed by an uncomfortably creepy country singer) is much less satisfying than Babe’s struggle to fit in on his own farm. The only entertaining aspects you’re likely to find here is a couple chuckles in seeing Gordy in the scuba gear & in scenes where he teaches human children to understand pig talk, which apparently is a talent reserved for “people who take the time to understand animals, especially the pure of heart.” Blech.
My Brother the Pig (1999)
As thoroughly empty as Gordy is, it still doesn’t represent the depths of live-action pig cinema. Things get much worse. The straight-to-DVD 1999 comedy (in name only) My Brother the Pig offers even less than Gordy in the way of entertainment and calls into question exactly how films this terrible make it to completion, especially considering the volume of them that are made for pint-sized audiences. Do we really hate children this much? The movie’s only saving graces are in the odd sensation of watching a teen Scarlett Johansson & Eva Mendes starting their careers in hopelessly mindless dreck.
In My Brother the Pig a 13 year old ScarJo struggles to live with her rascal little brother & pristine co-ed nanny, all the time believing that she doesn’t get the love & attention that she deserves. In all honesty, she deserves shit. Her brother may be annoying but at least he does mildly interesting things from time to time (like hosting food fights set to late-90s ska) instead of endlessly complaining like a spoiled brat. Anyway, the mischievous little bro activates some magic crystals through some kind of spilled ice cream spell and is unexpectedly transformed into a pig. This prompts a road trip to Mexico in order to visit Mendes’ family, who happen to be “keepers of the animal spirits.” I promise you it’s a lot less exciting than it sounds. My Brother the Pig only barely even reaches the basic “talking pig” requirements of this genre thanks to the transformation (which “amusingly” leaves him with a pig’s tail) and a particularly silly rendition of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm”. It’d be more than forgivable if you skip this one entirely.
Animal Farm (1999)
Just one month after My Brother the Pig‘s home video release, 1999’s Hallmark adaptation of Animal Farm aired on cable television. Unlike Gordy & My Brother the Pig, Animal Farm is actually pretty decent. It’s far from the technical achievement of Babe, but it does feature a nice mix of talking animal techniques, including all three approaches in the genre: animatronics, CGI, and the good, old-fashioned Mr. Ed trick. Just like with Babe, the animatronic puppets featured in Animal Farm were provided by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. And they look pretty great, especially for a made-for-TV production. The sheep, collies, pigs, geese, and horses also call into mind a similar scenario as Babe, but it’s a more-than forgivable similarity, especially considering those animal’s real-life ties to farm life as well as the fact that Animal Farm‘s source material outdates The Sheep-Pig by nearly four decades.
One of the immediate differences you’ll notice between Babe‘s talking pig & those of Animal Farm is that George Orwell’s creations are much more grotesque & realistic than cute. Instead of the adorable voice work provided by the immensely talented (and, unfortunately, recently deceased) Christine Cavanaugh in Babe, the pigs in Animal Farm boast intense, booming voices. They pose themselves as intellectuals, authority figures, and (as the story goes) cruel bullies that are worlds away from Babe’s loveable personality. The kind wisdom of Kelsey Grammar’s voice work softens the portrayal of swine just a tad in the picture, but for the most part pigs are terrifying monsters here with their own authoritarian brutality as well as black & white propaganda footage. I’ll give Hallmark a lot of credit there: they actually put a lot of effort into preserving Orwell’s well-known story for the screen, not at all softening its violent edges for young audiences. For instance this is the only film in the genre where threatened trips to the butcher’s block for pigs are actually fulfilled. Overall, Animal Farm‘s a pretty decent adaptation of an important, but perhaps too-familiar work, far better than what I was expecting based on its pedigree.
Charlotte’s Web (2006)
Speaking of surprisingly well-executed adaptations with source material that predates Babe’s The Sheep-Pig origins, Nickelodeon’s 2006 take on E.B. White’s novel Charlotte’s Web is actually pretty great as well. It’s hard to say exactly why this version of Charlotte’s Web works so well on its own, but it does feel the most distinguished from Babe in terms of the talking-pig genre, so it at the very least it sidesteps a lot of comparative scrutiny. Even the state-of-the-art puppetry of Babe is entirely avoided here, replaced by the omnipresent use of CGI that has dominated children’s media in the past decade. I am usually turned off by this kind of CGI-dependent kids’ media, but I still ended up finding Charlotte’s Web to be the most enjoyable live-action, talking-pig film that didn’t feature Babe, the genre’s undisputed king.
I’m willing to attribute Charlotte’s Web success to the casting just as much as the inherent charm of the source material. Dakota Fanning plays Fern competently & the “humble”, “terrific”, “radiant” piggy Wilbur was voiced by relative unknown Dominic Scott Kay. It’s the rest of the animal personalities that really makes the movie work. Julia Roberts is greatly cast as the gentle, titular spider, as is John Cleese as a pompous sheep. Other voices include Oprah Winfrey, Robert Redford, Reba McEntire, Kathy Bates, Andre 3000 & Cedric the Entertainer. That’s quite a ridiculous crew. What really holds the film down, though, is the all-too-perfect decision in hiring Steve Buscemi to voice Templeton the Rat. There’s some corny “children are better listeners” bullshit echoed from Gordy here (which most likely borrowed that sentiment from White’s novel) as well as some lame humor in the film’s repetitive fart jokes & lines like “What the hay?!” & “I guess the yolk’s on me”, but Buscemi’s turn as Templeton as well as the decision to remain faithful to the source material made the film an enjoyable little diversion, just barely more entertaining & distinct than 1999’s Animal Farm. And a lot less creepy.
There might be something to be said about the fact that the best three live-action, talking pig films were all adaptations of pre-existing novels. The narrative slightness of Gordy & My Brother the Pig at the very least prove that a cute pig alone is not enough to carry a film (duh). Still, there’s something special about Babe & Pig in the City that the other two enjoyable adaptations listed here don’t even come close to touching in terms of quality & rewatchability. Babe is the king. No matter how enjoyable, the film versions of Charlotte’s Web & Animal Farm are merely the best among the pretenders to his throne.
For more on August’s Movie of the Month, George Miller’s Babe 2: Pig in the City, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, our exploration of how it serves as a key to understanding Miller’s strange oeuvre, and last week’s look at its companion in live-action, pig-themed horror, Pigs (1972).