Babe - The Didactic Pig
Everytime I say that Babe is one of my all time favorite movies, top 5 probably, people always respond with a little laugh thinking that’s the reaction I’m looking for - because stating something like that must have had the sole purpose of trying to present myself as cute, funny, quirky. Then they move on to another subject, and I try and stop them - why is it so hard to hear me out for 30 seconds and let me explain why I think Babe is a stellar example of filmmaking? They then give me another tiny smile to just politely inform me they’re gonna break eye contact now and move on to look at their smartphones. So I think to myself how awesome Babe is for a little while and let it go. One time, this guy’s reaction was ‘Oh yeah, I have guilty pleasures too’. Um, no buddy, no guilt here, just pure appreciation...
It is difficult to think of a film as simple, well-paced and well-focused as Babe. This is no surprise once you acknowledge the fact that it was a 10 year labor of love for the producer George Miller (best known as the director of both the original Mad Max and the 2015 remake). A project ten years in the making for various reasons, but primarily because Miller thought it was essential to wait until special effects technology catches up with his vision for the film, which goes to show how strongly he felt this is a story which must be done right. And the wait paid off because even now, 20 years later, Babe remains a truly beautiful film with excellent photography, lighting, scenography, unforgettable music, and for me, most of all, touching, believable, and ironically very human characters.
The primary motif of the movie is the quest for purpose in life. This theme is so universally relatable and borderline cliché that it seems very easy for a writer or director to cross a line and dissolve a story into mush. But Babe succeeds brilliantly at not being pathetic. Basically, it’s Rocky, but with animals. You have this little pig who by chance escapes his fate of getting fat, being blissfully ignorant, getting slaughtered and ultimately, being bacon. Shortly after the departure of his mother and siblings in a meat truck, Babe is also taken away, to be a prize at the county fair. He comes across Farmer Hoggett (a brilliant, understated performance by James Cromwell who also rocks pretty impressive sideburns) at the fair where he is being displayed as a reward if you correctly guess his weight. Their eyes meet, the pig’s and the farmer’s. It’s important to note that Hoggett’s farm doesn’t hold pigs, which is stated in the movie. He just sees the pig and instinctively knows there’s something to it. He picks Babe up and correctly guesses his weight, weighing him like a newborn, which is such a subtle way to foreshadow the significance that Babe will later have in his life. Farmer Hoggett is a man of few words, very down-to-earth, but there is also a quiet dignity about him that really pulls you in - much like there is with Babe, actually. I love the subtle way the movie shows Farmer Hoggett and ‘Pig’ steadily gaining understanding and respect for each other, learning from each other, caring for each other and ultimately accepting they’re irreplaceable in each other’s lives.
Farmer Hoggett chilling with his dogs. Photo: Universal Pictures
This is where I will go deep into spoiler territory, because I need to go into the plot in order to do justice to the careful complexity of Babe and explore some of its very serious themes. So, Babe is taken to the Hoggett farm where he quickly realises that every animal has its place and role, delegated in order to maintain balance in the land they share and live on. He meets Fly, a sheep dog and mother to a couple of puppies. She befriends Babe at first, feeling sorry for him because she knows his purpose, which Babe is oblivious to and curiously doesn’t ask about. Enter Mrs. Hoggett, who is delighted to see him – she loves pork! She sees Babe as the sum of all his tasty parts – chops, ham, bacon. She can’t wait to fulfill his destiny! We are also introduced to Rex, the father dog, who lays out the law and functions according to it. He is a somewhat tragic character, for he is ashamed of himself because he lost his purpose (to herd sheep and be a leader) after an incident which took place in the past. He is very aggressive in his duty to maintain law and order. Another important character is Ferdinand, the anorexic duck and a sort of sibling figure for Babe. He serves as comic relief, but actually lives a pretty dark life when you think about it, because, like Babe, he was born to die. He is the other option for Christmas dinner and, unlike Babe, is fully aware that he is expected to be tasty soon. Ferdinand tells Babe straight out that humans eat ducks, and explains that he is on a quest to make himself indispensable. His solution is simple (simple meaning stupid here, the farmer has an alarm clock) – to be a rooster. But after another duck (her name was Roseanne) lands on the Christmas table (Farmer Hoggett spoke up for Babe, he’s falling for him hard), Ferdinand gives in to despair and exclaims dramatically that ‘his destiny eats away at his soul’ and leaves the farm to search for a kinder life. Babe follows and then, guided by fate, comes across a situation (sheep poachers stealing sheep) that reveals to the audience and to Farmer Hoggett Babe’s true destiny - to become ‘Pig’, the sheep dog! Sheep pig, that is. Through his newfound talent of sheep herding Babe is justifying his existence and justifying the Farmer’s affection for him. The pig’s new identity is a relief to the farmer because he obviously already could not bear to kill Babe and now the pig’s divine purpose, which he sensed Babe had as soon as he picked him up at the fair, has unfolded before him; which allows Farmer Hoggett to maintain his affection.
Babe and Ferdinand. Photo: Universal Pictures
Thus, the good times start for Babe. Everything is going swimmingly. Babe and the Farmer are happy. Fly is happy again – after her puppies are adopted and taken to their new homes, Babe reenters her life and provides great comfort to her in her fragile, hurt state. She adopts him, substituting his mother, who he lost at such an early age, and he takes on the role of her puppy. The boss’s wife is out of town - so Babe can go into the house. But then Duchess, the housecat, is introduced. A spoiled, privileged animal who has nothing to do but egocentrically look ‘beautiful’ and stay indoors. She is kind of the AntiBabe. Mean, jealous, spiteful, insensitive, and yet obviously a good analyst and the only one who reveals the truth to Babe with no mercy. Sadistically, she tells Babe that the sole purpose of a pig’s life is to die and be eaten. This revelation which is being hinted at throughout the film by various animals, breaks Babe’s little heart and sends him into an existential depression. He loses the will to live because he feels, knowing what he now knows, that he is already dead. He wanders off in despair, into a dark rainy night, unable to accept that his beloved farmer would eat his mother without second thought. But because 1. a dog’s purpose is to serve his master and 2. he is no longer sure of the law because of the things he has witnessed, Rex retrieves the wet, nearly dead piglet after being delegated with the task. Then comes one of the most memorable and gentle scenes captured on film – Farmer Hoggett bottle feeds Babe, literally a pig in a blanket, and by showing Babe his existence is of value to him, revives his will to live and herd, and ultimately triumph using his incredible talent, which is not sheep herding but being nice to everyone and being himself. This is another element I love about Babe – the fact that he IS just a pig. It doesn’t turn out that he’s actually a descendant of a long line of sheepherding pigs who somehow have ancient celtic sheepdog blood streaming through their veins or something stupid like that. There is no explanation other than - Babe is just an incredibly nice, goodhearted pig.
Making vegetarians since 1995. Photo: Universal Pictures
Babe is a film that respects children, it understands that children are people too and can appreciate beauty and do not need to be talked down to. They deserve complex and subtle material. Its messages are innocent and are to be taken seriously, just as children and Babe himself are. It is a film which teaches many lessons to whoever watches it, children and adults, if they watch with an open heart, not guided by cynicism. It demonstrates how to cooperate through respect. It shows how condescension toward others keeps them divided. That love, sorrow, sadness and fear are universal emotions. That you win others over when you speak from the heart, instead of harshly threaten. That you can change yourself and subsequently others. You should learn the ways of others and what they value. I can’t think of a more accurate portrayal of a truly affectionate relationship than the one between Farmer Hoggett and Babe. They are each other’s hope, they both need each other to win. Many films tend to depict love in a very in-your-face and overly dramatic way. This shows a basic lack of understanding of the very nature of love as opposed to being in love. A depiction of love without sensitivity and tenderness is pointless. And even with the right understanding, it is definitely hard to translate to the screen. And for me, this is the foremost reason why Babe is such a significant film – it succeeds flawlessly at depicting the calm, dignified and silent wisdom of true love.