Hogging the Spotlight


Babe: Pig in the City is both rougher and more sophisticated than the original Babe. Its story line is more fragmented, its
politics less profoundly progressive. There are no scenes in the sequel as elaborately choreographed as Babe’s foray into the house to confiscate the alarm clock, no relationships as complex and moving as the one that bound two genuine eccentrics— the pig and Farmer Hoggett (James Cromwell).

There is, however, a great set— as Dickensian as it is postmodern— that collages bits of New York, Hollywood, Sydney, Hong Kong, Venice, and a half dozen other cities. And there are some winning new characters: a taciturn, elderly orangutan; a well-matched chimpanzee couple who become the parents of darling twins; a pink-dyed stray poodle who sounds like Blanche Dubois; and an arthritic Jack Russell terrier who speeds along with the help of wheels attached to his back legs.

Babe himself is little changed from when we last saw him. If anything, he seems slightly smaller than before, about the same size as the pit bull who becomes his guardian during his adventures in the big city. He still has that snuffly wet nose, those mournful blue eyes, and, even though there’s a new actress speaking for him (E.G. Daily), that beguilingly soft, eager, yearning voice.

This Babe opens with the pig and Farmer Hoggett’s triumphant return from the sheep-herding competition where, if you remember, Babe took first prize. But Babe has little time to enjoy his newfound fame as a sheep-pig. A horrible accident caused by Babe’s clumsiness leaves Farmer Hoggett in head-to-toe casts and braces. Attempting to save the farm from bankruptcy, Babe and Mrs. Hoggett (Magda Szubanski) wind up in a foreign city where no one seems to like animals or country folk, and where law enforcement is more predatory than the human and animal populations it’s meant to control.

Introduced by the sly title “Chaos Theory,” the teeming bohemian quarter of the city— packed with skinheads, leather freaks, bikini-clad women, blank-faced cops in Ray-Bans— looks like something out of director George Miller’s other signature film, Mad Max. Babe goes through most of the film wearing a spiked collar given to him by the pit bull whose life he heroically saves. Accessories, however cool, do not make over the pig. Babe doesn’t accept the eat-or-be-eaten ethos of the city, and it’s well that he doesn’t. Instead, the new kid (and only pig) on the block proves that “a kind and steady heart can mend a sorry world” by rescuing several dozen pets and stray animals and shepherding them to a better life. As a theme or moral, this one is more conventional than the celebration of difference and the critique of hierarchies and stereotypes that enlivened the original Babe.

Hollywood scuttlebutt has it that the film was considerably toned down after the alarmed reactions of children at a preview screening. The hasty reedit (there were too many product tie-ins in place to delay the Thanksgiving release) may account for the patchy story line and a tone that’s more frantic but less emotionally varied than in the first Babe. The chase scenes are as inventive as in the best Road Runner cartoons, but there’s probably one too many of them, and the final one (despite the shower of blue balloons as ecstatic as the falling feathers in Zero de Conduit and the enthusiastic acrobatics of Mrs. Hoggett, who is the butt of some nasty fat jokes) goes on much too long.

Still, Babe: Pig in the City is enormously appealing and, like the original, appropriate for both children and adults, although not perhaps for tiny tots. The combination of live animals and animatronics is as wondrous as ever. What the narrator (Roscoe Lee Browne) says of the Hoggett farm, “It’s in a place slightly to the left of the 20th century,” also could be said of Babe: Pig in the City. Or, in the words of the pit bull, “What the pig says, goes!”

The secret of Babe’s success is not only what he says but how he says it. The pig has one of the most seductive voices in the history of cinema— right up there with those of Delphine Seyrig, Jean-Luc Godard, and Marlon Brando. Most discussions of actors and of that mysterious quality called “presence” revolve around their faces and bodies— around distinctive features and parts, and how they work and move in concert. What’s seldom mentioned is the voice, although, even more than the eyes, it’s the mirror of the psyche, the index of intelligence, emotion, and physiology.

Insofar as Little Voice is a film about a voice that defies expectation and how it came into being, it’s quite interesting. It’s also a creepy depiction of nuclear family dysfunctions and disassociations. At its center is Jane Horrocks, who, in the title role, gives the best female performance of the year.

Adapted by director Mark Herman from Jim Cartwright’s stage play The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, the film is set in a working class backwater in the north of England. L.V. (Horrocks), a fragile, paralytically shy young woman, lives with Mari, her brassy, bawdy, drunken, frustrated mother (Brenda Blethyn, giving a performance that makes Shelley Winters’s “noxious baba” in Kubrick’s Lolita seem like a paragon of discretion and empathy). The two women loathe each other. L.V. blames her mother for her father’s death. Mari hates her daughter for preferring her father, and also because the neurotic L.V. is a reminder of her misbegotten marriage.

L.V. spends all her time in her room listening to the records that her father loved— Judy Garland, Shirley Bassey, Marilyn Monroe. When L.V. thinks no one can hear her, she sings, channeling voices of the various divas through her own. Horrocks does all her own singing, and the sound is extraordinary, to put it mildly. L.V. never sounds more fully and nakedly like herself than when she’s evoking someone else. (It’s the paradox that underlies all great acting.)

Eventually, she’s discovered by a desperate, sleazy talent scout (Michael Caine) who convinces her to perform at the local club. Although the mother-bashing, and the contempt for the working class in general (except for L.V. and Ewan McGregor, as her almost equally shy soul mate, everyone in the film is completely grotesque), nearly drove me out of the theater, the show that Horrocks puts on when she finally takes to the stage is more than worth the wait.

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