#74: Babe
(Australia, 1995; dir. Chris Noonan; cin. Andrew Lesnie)
IMDb // My Page

The Daily Telegraph recently published a list of the 20 best films for children, and it's an interesting list, culling surprising titles from the Disney catalogue and encompassing both well-known and underseen titles—even if, in this reader's opinion, its belief in Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit runs prematurely excessive. Conspicuously missing from the list, if I may pose only one corrective, is Babe, the box-office sleeper of 1995, unexpected Academy favorite, and apparently unreproducible miracle, since the sequel struck precious few, give or take Gene Siskel, as rivaling the original.

Babe is magic. Cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, blessing the film with early, colorful hints of the Antipodean fantasy world of The Lord of the Rings, works within a stable and pitch-perfect palette that nonetheless glides easily among the emerald pastures of Hoggett farm, the calico colors inside the house, the sepia frights and silhouettes of a killing shed, and the blue-filtered nightmare flashback to the drowning sheep. Whatever wizardry allowed the animals not just to "speak" but do so in a way that is terrifically un-creepy has yet to be revealed, at least to me, but these and other special effects in Babe are perennial joys, even after six or seven viewings spread over ten years. The voicework, headed by Christine Cavanaugh's dear articulation of Babe's lines, is just impeccable, and then there's the physical acting by the animals: the uproarious bobs and weaves of Ferdinand the Duck's long neck, the malicious envy of Duchess the Cat, the nervous energy of the dogs Rex and Fly as they attempt to extract key information from a flock of seen-it-all sheep. Why is it that most popular films can't cobble together a decent pen of human actors but Babe can wrest a menagerie of real and animatronic animals into a taut, funny, even witty ensemble? The answer to that question probably lies somewhere in the province of why most child-targeted movies are so clogged with puerile, dizzying set-pieces while Babe exemplifies the virtues of coherent action, picture-perfect art direction, a gentle and melodic score, and a gallery of bonafide characters—both the creatures and their keepers—who negotiate issues of aspiration, prejudice, politeness, jealousy, non-conformity, belonging, and surprise that, in their basic topography, are just as keen for children as for adults.

At the center of Babe, though, is a love affair between farmer and animal that for me handily eclipses its analogue in Wallace and Gromit. Lesnie, as we know from the Rings films, is a whiz at camera movement, and one of the supplest and sweetest in Babe is the high-angle POV shot when Farmer Hoggett first spies Babe in his little plywood box at the county fair. Seguing into a ridiculously affecting shot/reverse shot between Hoggett and hog, this poignant moment finds its obvious, perfect complement in the final shots of the same duo, which end the movie on the same introspective note of deep, intimate, friendly togetherness that we appreciate when Christopher Robin and Winnie-the-Pooh, at the finis of The House at Pooh Corner, "Come to an Enchanted Place and We Leave Them There." That Babe's central human character is not a winsome child but a laconic adult, moved and stirred even to spontaneous dancing by this able and good-hearted animal, is another of its lovely, unexpected departures from formula. Embellished in a gleaming white light that we somehow don't resent, Farmer Hoggett and Babe are one of the best and soundest teams in recent movies. Point me to even ten other movies in the last decade that combine unbashful sentiment, top-of-the-line visual effects, rounded-out characters, fully functional subplots for almost all of them, piquant mise-en-scène conceived in this much doting detail, and one-liners as good as "I suppose the life of an anorexic duck doesn't amount to much in the scheme of things, but Pig, I'm all I've got!" That'll do, indeed.

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