In 1995, Babe was nominated for an Academy award against Sense and Sensibility, Il Postino, Braveheart and Apollo 13. It lost to Braveheart, of course, but at the time, the academy had been dabbling with supporting children’s entertainment by nominating films like Beauty and the Beast for best picture – in all cases those nominations were the wins. Now there’s a category for animated pictures, and likely we’ll never see Pixar win a best picture trophy. But watching Babe again, it’s hard not to call it a classic. And it’s hard not to call it a masterpiece, kid’s film or no. Babe was robbed, and our review of the Blu-ray follows after the jump.
Babe (voiced by Christine Cavanaugh) is a pig separated from his mother early in life, and is given away as a prize at a state fair. He’s picked up by Farmer Hoggett (James Cromwell), who is an odd sort of farmer. His wife (Magda Szubanski) wants the pig for a nice Christmas dinner, but Hoggett develops an odd liking for the pig. Babe makes friends with Fly (voiced by Miriam Margolyes), the sheepdog mother whose children are all sold off. She warms to the little pig, but her husband Rex (voiced by Hugo Weaving) is the taciturn father figure who believes in the old order.
Babe gets himself in to trouble, but also finds himself useful in the herding of sheep. The sheepdogs treat the sheep as stupid, and the sheep see all dogs as wolves for their violent behavior. But Babe doesn’t insult the sheep, and finds that he can herd them better with kindness and empathy than violence. Which leads farer Hoggett to his wildest idea: he wants to use Babe in a sheepdog competition.
Directed by Chris Noonan (though written and produced by Mad Max director George Miller, who may or may not have had more of a hand in production than his credit belies), this fable adapts the austerity of early Disney. There’s no modern humor (excepting the use of a fax machine), and there’s a real timelessness to everything that happens – partly because the Hoggetts seem stuck in some sort of 50’s time warp. And though there’s some comic relief in the Bronx-voiced duck Ferdinand (Danny Mann), nothing feels unnecessary – it’s a 93 minute movie, and its directness is very winning.
And like early Disney it’s not afraid of going dark thematically. Death is a very real thing in the film, and the life on the farm is not glamorized. There is real death from the start (in this case, Babe’s mother is removed in the first few scenes, and there’s a wolf attack that proves fatal), but the film never dawdles in darkness, it sees death as part of the world.
But perhaps more importantly is the worldview. Babe adopts the attitude that all creatures should be treated with respect, and in doing so is able to communicate with the sheep and become a great sheepdog by treating them with respect and kindness. The old way – as epitomized by the sheepdog – is to treat those you don’t understand as things to be kicked around, and talked down to, while Hoggett proves himself open to new ideas. His dedication to the little pig is heartwarming, and the idea of the community of animals working together gives the film a great kick. When Hoggett is validated in his beliefs at the end, and the film’s coda gives us an old man’s approval, it’s perfect.
But more than that it’s great cinema. Noonan and company do a great job of making the effects as invisible as possible – even though the CGI for the mouths should seem dated, the blending of real animals and animatronic animals is mostly seamless, and it never takes away from the film. But the benefit of a children’s narrative is the clean morality and sense of goodness that a film like this can evoke. The belief system of the movie is so powerful, that regardless of the audience’s age, the moral is powerful. Babe is one of the best movies I have ever seen, and I don’t say that lightly.
Universal’s Blu-ray presents the film in widescreen (1.78:1) and in DTS-HD 5.1 surround. The presentation is immaculate – though it’s unfortunate they didn’t release the film’s sequel as well. The extras are replicated from previous releases, which are a making of (4 min.) that focuses on the special effects, and a brief conversation with George Miller (6 min.). The meat is the commentary by George Miller, who walks through the production rather well, and also makes me suspicious about Chris Noonan’s role – who also wasn’t involved with the sequel. This though could have been availability, but it’s still a curious special edition in that way.