Am I the only member of the human race not wild about Babe? Don't get me wrong – there is much that is superb in this adaptation of Dick King-Smith's novel The Sheep-Pig. The craft of the film – whether its seamless orchestration of special effects technologies to conjure the illusion of talking, personable animals, or its cleverly developed narrative line – is a tribute to the combined skills of director Chris Noonan, co-producer George Miller and their collaborators.
The material is, in many respects, a perfect piece of children's fiction. Babe is a piglet plucked from his own world and plopped down on the farm of the Hoggetts (James Cromwell and Magda Szubanski). Befriended by dogs, an eccentric duck and other whimsical beasts, Babe is free to explore his environment – unaware that his human masters periodically consider serving him up for dinner.
Babe's dreams and aspirations fix on a noble career as a sheep dog – herding up sheep on the farm and, eventually, in public competition. His methods in this field are radical: civilised, polite address to the intellectually underestimated sheep, rather than the aggro barking employed by belligerent dogs.
Miller has commented that he would have liked to add a caption at the film's end: "Shot entirely on location in storybook land." The world of the film is in fact a rather strange conglomeration of elements and influences. Local reviewers have often raged against the bland, mid-Pacific/internationalist films made in this country – movies stranded between here and various points overseas.
Babe is not bland, but it is bizarre. A student of Australian culture might take it as the perfect picture of our national, cultural schizophrenia – since it overlays a nostalgic evocation of British pastoralism with a thick layer of sentimental Americana. It is especially disconcerting to see a local comic icon such as John Doyle (of Roy and H.G. fame) dubbed with an American accent.
The tone of the film – with its wide-eyed wonder, themes of striving and overcoming, and occasional hints of a dark side – is essentially Spielbergian. Into this model, Noonan and Miller have bravely attempted to add a nutty chorus of singing mice and a few fast, burlesque gags – touches reminiscent of Looney Tunes cartoons or The Simpsons which fail to integrate themselves successfully into the proceedings.
Beyond such cultural or aesthetic queries, Babe troubles me also on a broader level. I have a fierce, temperamental resistance to any popular film (such as this one) that declares itself modelled on the mythological themes expounded by Carl Jung or especially Joseph Campbell. Such proud, New Age self-consciousness often leads to treacly, sanctimonious, horribly schematic movies – smug moral fables quite disconnected from the doubts, anxieties and ecstasies of contemporary experience.
Naturally, there is room for discriminating judgment here. While such faddish mythomania reached its nadir in the space operas of George Lucas, Babe certainly manages to invest dramatic power into the schema propounded by Campbell (who is, according to Noonan, "almost a religion" for Miller).
But there are aspects of the Campbellian life-lesson that still bother me, even in Babe. The first snag is a curious – even insidious – apolitical streak. The film begins with a powerful, dark, ironic scene that compares a pig's fantasy of heaven with the true fate that awaits him or her at the meat works. And, at points throughout the story, the power that humans wield over animals is depicted as a kind of political oppression – which of course it is, both literally and metaphorically.
But Babe is neither a story of animal revolution, nor even an oblique, allegorical reflection on the inequities of our social system. It does speak out, in a commendable and stirring way, against various forms of social prejudice. And it does endorse Babe's dream of rising above his circumscribed station in life.
But ultimately this is a tale about coming to terms with the status quo, with (as the animals put it) "the way things are". And in this context, any dark fate hanging over these animals – even if it's the meat factory – can be rendered palatable as a symbol of the mortality which awaits us all.
And then there is the sticky matter of gender roles in the typical, triumphant, Campbell-inspired tale. Of course, not all mythic heroes have to be male – John Boorman's underrated Beyond Rangoon (1995), or indeed the Kennedy Miller telemovie Bangkok Hilton (1989), prove otherwise. But Babe falls in line with conventional assumptions: the men (human or animal) are visionary, complex and troubled; while the women are clucky, bitchy or trivial.
Some may take this account of mine as an absurdly weighty reflection on what is, after all, a lighthearted entertainment. And, as a divertissement, Babe mostly works well. But it's also a serious, even preachy film, as are all movies which knowingly place themselves in the Campbell tradition. I'm just not sure I entirely like what it preaches.
© Adrian Martin December 1995