My therapist often reminds me of the idea that 1% is better than 0%. I tend to view goals of growth, of positive change, either personal or societal, in a limited, binary lens. I’ve either succeeded or haven’t. I’m either winning the battle against depression or not, helping make the world a better place or not. 100% is the only success; anything less is a failure by default.
It’s unfair to me, to all of us to view ourselves with such stringent judgment. Being a kind, constructive person (especially to yourself) is a sliding scale. Working to move that scale higher is, of course, the goal. But a scale at any number higher than 0, even if it’s just 1, is a win. It doesn’t help to fight against yourself to tip the scale until the scale itself is busted. It helps to be patient, accepting, forgiving. To be you.
Babe, a dang family film about a dang talking pig, always helps remind me of this. Released in 1995, the dream team of Chris Noonan and George Miller (yes, that George Miller) adapted the Dick King-Smith children’s book The Sheep-Pig into a sumptuous, gentle, quiet, and heartfelt classic for the ages. Using an exquisite combination of real animals, Jim Henson‘s Creature Shop-work, and subtle CGI effects, Babe immerses us into a world of talking animals whose social hierarchies and respected systems remind us of our own — with the looming threat of “being eaten” adding a touch of a hurdle.
Babe, our titular pig voiced by the iconic Christine Cavanaugh, makes his way to a farm after his family of pigs are taken away from him (y’know, to be eaten! This is a film for kids!). The farm belongs to a quiet farmer named Arthur Hoggett (James Cromwell, never better) and his talkative wife named Esme Hoggett (Magda Szubanski, instantly iconic). While getting oriented to his new home, he meets a litany of differently-temperamented animals, including a sympathetic sheepdog named Fly (Miriam Margolyes), her more aggressively stringent partner Rex (Hugo Weaving), and a mentoring sheep named Maa (Miriam Flynn). Babe has a lot to learn about the functions of animal society, but just might have something to teach himself. Something that will inadvertently yet organically remind us that the “us” we are can change the world just by being “us”. And something that will delightfully awaken the often sleepy Farmer Hoggett.
The aesthetics of Babe encapsulate its source material as a children’s book, segmenting each vignette with onscreen chapter titles narrated (and often sung, delightfully) by a sort of Greek chorus of high-pitched mice. DP Andrew Lesnie lenses the unordained nature of the environments with a welcoming pastoral quality, making even the most simple actions feel mythic — a magic-hour shot of Cromwell spreading out wool against the sunset made me gasp out loud. Nigel Westlake‘s score incorporates the maestoso section of Camille Saint-Saëns‘ Symphony No. 3 throughout, to an astonishing effect; its invigorating, intuitive, constantly changing melody and chords feeling like an extended, always-welcome hand — especially when it culminates in Cromwell literally singing and dancing to the tune with unbridled joy. These formal components make the entire film feel like a timeless fable, a work of pure accessibility, a keen way to unlock your brain and heart into a childlike position of absorption, so it can communicate its rather complicated message with appreciated clarity.
Our character wants and arcs, even with tertiary characters, are defined by “wanting to be something the world doesn’t want you to be.” A silly-on-the-surface duck named Ferdinand (Danny Mann) just wants to crow and wake up everyone on the farm. The Hoggets’ kids just want their parents to use an unfamiliar fax machine, telling them, “Don’t be afraid of it just because it’s new.” And Babe, a pig, kinda wants to be a sheepdog — to step out the enclosed pen pigs must stay in, go help herd sheep into organized areas, and even go inside the humans’ home from time to time. This degradation of social order is first met with disbelief and disgust by his fellow animals. And even when he succeeds at saving the sheep from local sheep-stealers, putting his inherent “sheep protecting” instincts into good use, he’s given advice that only yearns to solidify these oppressive structures. Even our sympathetic sheepdog mother figure Fly insists that sheep are stupid, that the way to succeed as their herder is to dominate them, berate them, even bite them.
But for all of this talk of honoring what’s natural about nature, everyone around Babe is missing one vital aspect. Being mean is not Babe’s nature. And he needs to honor that. And when he does, speaking to the sheep with a sense of mutual respect and dignity (something that Maa reveals the sheep have been looking for for quite some time), he succeeds and thensome. This discovery of listening to and honoring one’s inner nature despite the constant din of outer nature’s insistences spills over into the quiet purview of Farmer Arthur Hoggett. He sees Babe’s successes through all the other weeds in the way. And despite the folks around him, including his wife, finding his growing closeness to a sheep-pig more than a little odd, he honors his own inner nature.
Babe follows this train of thought to a gentle, lovely, and easily applicable climax. Nothing ferocious, wild, or explosive happens. Instead, Hoggett takes Babe to a sheepdog herding competition. The panel of judges, also eager on holding up oppressive hierarchies, reluctantly decides he’s allowed to compete. And in a beautifully silent sequence composed primarily of wide shots, Hoggett watches as Babe calmly, gently, respectfully herds the sheep where they need to go. Hoggett is not necessarily surprised, or even overly ecstatic at this win. Instead, he looks at his beloved pig, and utters these words, which might be my favorite last line in all of cinema:
That’ll do, pig. That’ll do.
It’s not a grand speech. Not an extraordinarily rousing call to a destiny of being the chosen one. This kind of gesture wouldn’t be right for any of these characters. Instead, it’s as simple a positive observation as one can make. There is no need to rise up past what you already are. No need to hard reset on your old destiny in favor of hastily writing a new one.
You are enough. Your inherent 1% is better than 0%. That, absolutely, will do. And this idea, simply told, gives me so, so much comfort.
Babe is now streaming on HBO Max. For more of Collider’s favorite comfort movies, here’s why Harry Potter still works despite its author’s ignorant nature.