Episode #68 of The Swampflix Podcast: The Devil vs. Keanu & The Witches of Eastwick (1987)

Welcome to Episode #68 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our sixty-eighth episode, we wrap up the Halloween season with The Devil himselves. James & Brandon are joined by Krewe Divine co-founder Virginia Ruth to discuss three movies in which Keanu Reeves goes head to head with Satan. Also, Brandon makes James watch The Witches of Eastwick (1987) for the first time. Enjoy!

-Brandon Ledet & James Cohn

Mad Moana: Fury Cove

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Disney’s Moana (2016) was a jarringly alienating experience for me in a way I haven’t felt since venturing to the theater to watch John Waters’s brief cameo in Alvin and the Chipmunks: Road Chip (although the raucous laughter at my screening of the brutally unfunny Deadpool ranks as a close second). I just had no business being there, to the point where I have no business rating or reviewing the film in any traditional way. I’ve had positive experiences going out of my comfort zone to watch highly-praised Disney productions this year, namely Zootopia and The Jungle Book, but with Moana I was way out of my league. The buffoonish sidekicks, the uncanny valley CGI, the constant indulgences in  *cringe* musical theater: Moana was mostly just a reminder that Disney’s princess mode, no matter how highly praised, is just not for me. Brave, Mulan, Frozen, and so on have all alienated me in the same way (with The Little Mermaid being a rare exception to the rule) and not even song & dance numbers from the likes of a pro wrestler (The Rock), a Flight of the Conchords vet (Jemaine Clement), and a Godzilla cameo could turn me around on an experience that was so uncomfortably foreign to every fiber of my being. Moana did feature one isolated gag that spoke directly to me, though, an extended homage to Immortan Joe & the War Boys, just about the last influence I expected to find in a Polynesian Disney Princess action adventure.

The filmmakers behind Moana (an extensive team that has included names as significant as Hamilton‘s king nerd Lin Manuel Miranda & comedic genius Taika Waititi at some point in its production) have acknowledged in interviews that the film’s homage to Mad Max: Fury Road was indeed intentional, so I’m not just grasping at straws for something to enjoy here. The homage is brief, however, and although the film was not nearly as much of an obnoxiously undignified experience as Road Chip, it did remind me of mining the entirety of that work for a pitifully minuscule glimpse at the Pope of Trash. While on their quest to restore order in the world via a pebble-sized MacGuffin, Moana & [The Rock] are at one point pursued by a tribal army of Kakamora, a fiendish crew of mythical spirits who take the physical form of coconut War Boys, complete with their own coconut Immortan Joe. The Kakamora approach Moana’s puny-by-comparison boat in massive warships, attempting to board her ship & rob her of her all-important MacGuffin Pebble. Moana doesn’t directly reference Fury Road with any specific visual cues; it instead tries to mimic the feel & the scale of George Miller’s massive accomplishment in a more general way. The Kakamora appear in ocean mist the way the War Boys appear in the kicked-up dust of desert sands. They tether their ships to their target vessel as a means to both board it and slow it’d progress. Most tellingly, they play themselves into battle with a live music soundtrack of tribal drums. All that’s missing from the scene is a blind little Kakamora threateningly riffing on a coconut guitar.

If history has proven anything it’s that I’ll continue to shell out money for any new theatrical version of Fury Road that achieves distribution: 2D, 3D, (most absurdly) black & white. I doubt I’ll ever stop returning to that well and, alongside its stellar reviews from those more in tune with the merits of the Disney Princess brand, just the mere mention of a Fury Road homage was enough to drag me to the theater for a CG cartoon musical I had no business watching in the first place. In some ways it’s tempting to read into how Moana & Fury Road communicate plot-wise. Both films center on a female badass trying to welcome back Nature to a crumbling society  by employing a storied male warrior sidekick & the restorative help of water to defeat an evil presence and convert a longtime patriarchy to a matriarchal structure. In both instances, success also hinges on a race to a narrow physical passage that seems impossible to reach in time. These shared sentiments are likely entirely coincidental, though. Borrowing a little of Immortan Joe’s War Boy mayhem for its coconut pirates was simply a means to an end. Besides being a delightful nod to a property you wouldn’t expect to be referenced in this context, it also affords a key action sequence the sense of scale & visual specificity that makes George Miller one of the greatest visual minds of the genre. So much of Moana was Not For Me (which is obviously my fault and not the movie’s), so it was kinda nice in those few fleeting minutes to mentally return to a property that is a continuous source of personal pleasure. Moana was smart to borrow some scale & adrenaline from Fury Road in a scene that desperately needed the excitement (despite the Kakamora never registering as at all significant to the overall plot). Honestly, though, I was just glad to have the film’s more alienating musical theater & CGI sidekick buffoonery broken up by something familiar & genuinely badass that offered me a moment of escape from what was a personally misguided ticket purchase.

-Brandon Ledet

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)’s Black & Chrome Makeover

When I first reviewed George Miller’s high octane action spectacle Mad Max: Fury Road last summer, I was a little late to the table and the film had already been relegated to cult classic status, earning high marks from fans & critics, but failing to beat out less memorable films like Tomorrowland & San Andreas at the box office. Before reviewing the film I watched it twice in the theater in two different formats, 2D & 3D, and contextualized it by plowing through Miller’s entire catalog for perspective (for the record, it was just slightly bested by Babe 2: Pig in the City & The Witches of Eastwick as a career high for me). Despite all of that effort I floundered to find anything new or interesting to say about the film that wasn’t a mere echo of the praise it was already lauded with. Over a year later, I’ve now seen Fury Road reach its third theatrical format, the colorless Black & Chrome edition, and I still have nothing significant to add outside an echo of how wonderfully bizarre & overwhelmingly kinetic this film is. It’s still one of the best action films in recent memory. Immorten Joe is still a total fucking nightmare. Not much has changed in this most recent theatrical release but the color, so don’t beat yourself up if you couldn’t catch it in theaters (especially since there’s a Black & Chrome release on BluRay & VOD currently available for the still curious).

All that being said, I absolutely loved returning to the theater to witness this bizarre work unfold for a third time. Catching Fury Road in three distinct formats has been illuminating in that it allowed me to appreciate different aspects of the film in each run, while I still don’t believe I’ve seen it enough times to fully take it all in. While the campy, drive-in spectacle of watching it in 3D was my personal favorite way of experiencing the film, there was a definite novelty to the Black & Chrome version that highlighted aspects of what Miller accomplished I don’t remember noticing before. The story goes that while screening a work print of Fury Road without a score & without color, Miller found his preferred version of the film. The studio obviously rejected the idea of releasing the film in that state for fear of scaring off general audiences, but a year later a home video & brief theatrical release has made its way into the world after this production anecdote piqued fans’ interest (although with the score intact). As the title suggests, the black & chrome Fury Road is a little shinier and higher contrast than a traditional colorless film is presented, particularly in details like when Immorten Joe’s “war boys” spray that mysterious chrome substance across their teeth as a pick-me-up. This aspect of the print is emphasized in-film by lines like “Look at that! So shiny! So chrome!” and “You will ride eternal, shiny & chrome.” Although the color change doesn’t entirely alter the film’s DNA (how could it?), it is a shift that’s often justified & accentuated by the script.

I caught the black & chrome Fury Road at the only theater in Louisiana (and one of only a few dozen in the nation) that was screening a print. A little dazed by catching Moonlight earlier that afternoon & enjoying a few cocktails downtown in the meantime, I was confronted with two major annoyances at the cinema: a very talkative older couple who were brazen in their interruptions since there were only three of us “witnessing” Miller’s glory & a loud, hideous whine emanating from the projector. In an attempt to escape both distractions, I moved to the very front row of the tiny theater, completely immersed in the black & chrome madness blasting before me. Although I was mostly annoyed by the talking, I was a little amused when, after the glorious dust storm finish to the first chase scene, a man exclaimed, “Son of a bitch. I’m worn out! That was fucking genius.” As long as I’m echoing already-expressed sentiments here, I guess I have to whole-heartedly agree with that drunk man-child. Fury Road wore me out every single time I’ve seen it long before the end credits rolled. And, despite my exhaustion, it was indeed “fucking genius”. There’s an undeniable, infectious “how did this get made?” quality to Fury Road (as if it’s something Miller got away with, not just something he filmed), that strikes me every time no matter what row I’m sitting in, how disruptive the audience is, or in what state it’s being projected. There was something especially cool about watching it a few feet away from the screen, though. I’ll readily admit that, even if it wasn’t my first choice.

Overall, I am saying that the Black & Chrome edition of Fury Road isn’t an entirely unique experience, but that doesn’t mean nothing changed for me in that format. In a lot of ways, the black & white digital grain makes the film feel more 90s, recalling Aronofsky’s π or, once the supermodels appear, the world’s craziest perfume ad. A lack of color also called attention to the film’s dust & grit, as if it were a feature length adaptation of a White Zombie music video (the Russ Meyer-inspired “Thunderkiss ’65,” specifically). The horror of the zombie-like war boys popped off the screen more in the opening capture & detainment sequence. A little of the CGI is clouded without the color, making it play like a forgotten relic, maybe along the lines of Hardware or, hell, even Metropolis. All of these elements were already lurking in Fury Road to begin with, though. All switching formats does is make them more obvious. Some would even argue that the original version of the movie is near-monochromatic to begin with, so the difference is negligible at best. Personally, I would miss the bright reds & purples of details like the dust storm or the guitar goblin if this were the only version of the movie available, but thankfully it’s not. There’s now three versions of Fury Road out there waiting to impress & confound you as to how something so goddamn insane was ever made in the first place. I’m lucky to have seen it even once, let alone from so many angles & shifted perspectives. If nothing else, the black & chrome flavored Fury Road is at least worth seeking out to add that extra layer of appreciation to something we all already knew was wonderful. When you seek it out, though, just try to avoid the whining projectors & talkative drunks out there aiming to distract from it. There are many roadblocks to avoid on the path to Valhalla.

-Brandon Ledet

Babe is the Undisputed King of Cinematic Talking Pigs, but Who are the Pretenders to His Throne?

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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 (1995)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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).

-Brandon Ledet

The Subtle Terror of Babe 2: Pig in the City vs the Straightforward Terror of Pigs (1972)

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Although the idea of talking pigs in children’s media is not at all uncommon, Babe 2: Pig in the City is distinctive from its verbal swine brethren at the very least in its eagerness to terrify its pintsized audience. The only live-action talking-pig children’s movie that even comes close to Pig in the City on the terror scale is the 1999 made-for-TV adaptation of Animal Farm & even that horror show is softened a bit by the kindly wise voice of Kelsey Grammar. For more true pig-themed terror you have to look beyond Pig in the City‘s kids’ movie genre & venture into the seedy world of adult horror cinema. Horror flicks like Razorback & Chaw typically look for menace in the wild boar instead of the domesticated pig, which is a little besides the point here. 1972’s Pigs (alternately titled Daddy’s Deadly Darling) is about as literal you can get in the quest for pig-themed horror, delivering exactly what you’d expect, for better or worse, from a grindhouse exploitation film about flesh-eating pigs distributed on home video by infamous schlock-peddlers Troma.

There are of course innumerable, immediate differences in what you’ll find in these two wildly different features. The pigs in Pigs don’t talk (or think much for that matter). They’re also the main source of the movie’s terror, whereas in Pig in the City Babe is a unifying force that helps a hodgepodge gang of animals buck against the terrors of the outside world. Also, while Babe 2 is an adventurous film that explores expansive, otherworldly landscapes, Pigs rarely leaves the disgusting slop of its sty. That’s not to say, however, that they’re entirely separate form one another, at the very least thematically speaking.

Pigs is entirely faithful to its 70s schlock format, perhaps even painfully so. In its opening minutes, for instance, it powers through the rape-revenge plot of typical 70s exploitation fare in a (thankfully) breezy bout of exposition that does little more than get the requirement out of the way early. The Horror Movie Victim, Lynn, stabs her father to death after an attempted rape and is committed to a mental institution when she fails to cope with what happened. Thus completes her brisk transformation into an Escaped Horror Movie Crazy. Once on the lam, Lynn finds herself vulnerably alone in a seedy small town (much like how Babe is abandoned among reprobates in The Big City) where she quickly takes up a waitressing job at a bar owned by a fellow Horror Movie Crazy, who happens to have the curious hobby of murdering people & feeding their corpses to his pigs. There is an occasional subversion of schlock tropes here in that his flesh-eating pig farm is treated like no mystery & that instead of sizing Lynn up as a potential victim, he forms a makeshift family with her, essentially becoming her new father figure. Other than that, Pigs plays out almost exactly as you’d expect based on its genre & date of release.

Reading between the lines, there’s a surprising amount of connective tissue here. Both Pig in the City & Pigs have a strangely psychedelic quality to them that disorients their audiences. Pig in the City is, of course, more graceful in this effect, using a wide-angle lens POV of a child’s eye to overwhelm the screen with clowns, fires, confetti, and Nazi-esque dogcatchers. Pigs is much cruder in its psychedelia, assembling bizarre montages of pigs squealing while the heroine-murderess Lynn loses her mind. As the pigs feed on human corpses, their mouths soaked in blood, quick jump cuts & strange sound collages throw the viewer off-balance in unexpected ways, especially considering how cheap (in every meaning of the word) the film can be.

What’s even more surprising is the two films’ shared narrative focus on how familial bonds can be formed from the unlikeliest of sources, whether they be a roving gang of starving animals or a pair of mentally unhinged sociopaths who feed anyone they consider a threat to their pet pigs. The focus on familial bonds may be a result of the pig’s historical role as a farm animal & the farm’s domestic tradition (it’s a theme that’s certainly echoed in all of the non-Babe, pig-themed children’s media I’ve seen as well) or it could just be a simple coincidence. Either way it’s a theme that connects seemingly unreconcilable films otherwise related only through their live action pig subjects & the fact that they’re terrifying. If there’s ever a remake of Pigs (and anything’s possible in today’s remake market, mind you) it could up that terror factor even more by giving its flesh-eating pigs the power of speech. Especially if it keeps the squeal-laden freakout montages. There’s a lot a film like Pigs could learn from Babe 2, but a talking pig that also eats human flesh really sounds over the top in a way that I can get behind.

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 & last week’s exploration of how it serves as a key to understanding Miller’s strange oeuvre.

-Brandon Ledet

Babe 2: Pig in the City (1998) as a Key to Understanding George Miller’s Oeuvre as a Cohesive Whole

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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.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, George Miller’s Babe 2: Pig in the City, check out last week’s Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Babe 2 – Pig in the City (1998)

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Every month one of us makes the others watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made Britnee watch Babe 2: Pig in the City (1998).

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.

Lagniappe

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

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

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So, I’m a little late to the table with my review for George Miller’s 30-years-late-to-the-table Mad Max sequel Fury Road. There are a few various reasons for this delay. Before I went to the cinema, I wanted to contextualize the film in the grand scheme of Miller’s bizarrely disparate catalog, so I watched everything he’s directed so far. During this time, I got to revisit some all-time favorites like The Road Warrior & The Witches of Eastwick, discover some new bizarre worlds like in Babe: Pig in the City, and experience the excruciating, frozen depths of Hell thanks to the Happy Feet franchise. It was a confusing time. By the time I made it to the theater for Fury Road, the excitement surrounding the film had reached a fever pitch among a dedicated few who had already seen the film many times over. It’s crazy to think that with the amount of buzz this film has earned it’s never reached the number one spot at the box office, losing out to films critics have been understandably less enthusiastic about: San Andreas, Tomorrowland, and Pitch Perfect 2. This dichotomy of ignored-by-many, obsessively-loved-by-few pretty much sealed Fury Road’s fate as instant cult classic, one that will surely be remembered for far longer than San Andreas or Tomorrowland, before I even got a taste of its ridiculous charms.

During the initial you-gotta-see-this frenzy surrounding the film, I missed a lot of opportunity to find new things to say about it. All I can really do at this point is echo the praise. Yes, it’s one of the best action films released in years. Yes, it has surprisingly satisfying feminist bent for something so thoroughly violent. Yes, it’s an incredible technical feat stuffed to the gills with impressive practical stunts & confident art design. In a time where a lot of movies, such as Zombeavers & WolfCop, intentionally aim for a cult film aesthetic, it’s refreshing when something as authentically bizarre as Fury Road comes along and earns its rabid, isolated fan base naturally. Although the movie is less than a month old, it’s already gathered a cult following so strong that I doubt that there’s any praise I can throw at the film that hasn’t already been bested elsewhere. I loved the film. I thought it was fantastic, wonderfully distinct, up there with The Road Warrior, The Witches of Eastwick, and Pig in the City as one of the best things Miller has ever released onto the world. I still feel like that’s merely faint praise when compared to some of the more hyperbolic reactions out there. Because it’s not my favorite movie of all time, or even my favorite of the year so far, it might be best if I back off a bit from saying anything even vaguely critical and just say it’s great & I’m glad so many people love it.

That only leaves room for a couple details that I feel haven’t been addressed loudly enough. Firstly, it’s been said that because Miller filmed Fury Road in 2D and the 3D release was created in post-production, the 2D release is the superior viewing choice. Having now seen the film in both formats (another reason for the delayed review), I’d advise you to ignore that common wisdom. I enjoyed the 3D version of Fury Road immensely. It not only highlighted in the impressive depth of the chase scenes’ bizarre imagery, but also added a classic drive-in aesthetic layer to the film’s cult movie vibe. I think it’s worthwhile to see the film in 3D while it’s still an option, since it’s less likely you’ll be able to once it leaves the theaters. Another aspect of the film that’s been somewhat overshadowed is the strength of its central villain. A lot has been said about the badass character design & story arcs of Charlize Theron’s Furiosa, Tom Hardy’s Max, Nicholas Hoult’s Nux, and whoever the Hell played that weirdo guitar dude, but not nearly enough ink has been spilled on the central antagonist, Immortan Joe. Joe is a nightmarish brute, truly terrifying in both his abusive actions & basic look. When he gets his eventual comeuppance it’s a thoroughly satisfying moment, a fitful end to an eccentric villain who belongs to be recognized along with names like Darth Vader, Cruella DeVille and Freddy Krueger as one of the greatest of all time. Like a Jason Voorhees or a Michael Myers in their respective franchises, Immortan Joe is a large part of what makes Fury Road feel so special.

That’s about all I have to add to the already endless Mad Max conversation. I’d urge you to go see the film, but it’s likely that you already have. I’d praise its charms, but there’s little I can say that hasn’t already been hyperbolically topped. I’d pick at its (very few) faults, but there’s no point in deflating any of the air out of the party balloons. It makes me so happy that a film this strange has been exalted this high this quickly, so there’s not much left to do except to bask in its glory and try to get over these Immortan Joe nightmares. Maybe they’ll stop before I get to Valhalla, but probably not. At least I have these cans of silver spray paint to see me through in the mean time.

-Brandon Ledet