In 1995, children and adults alike fell in love with the story of Babe, a polite shepherding pig. In a rapidly changing and chaotic world, Babe provided a heart-warming story that included familiar tropes: the runt that proves himself with the help of a mother figure and the interloper that gradually wins over a disapproving alpha male, to name a couple. Yet Babe was a good story in its own right, differentiating itself through the incorporation of modern anxieties and humor, and the skillful integration of animatronics and CGI. Today, with the inundation of the internet, stories of domestic and foreign terrorism, and spectacular CGI, is Babe still charming? Can we still get into a story that features talking animals and an odd farmer that enters a piglet in a Sheep Dog competition? Of course, and here’s why.
Firstly, Babe was cleverly produced. Watching the film today, one cannot tell that it is twenty years old. The setting and characters are designed such that it is impossible to place Babe anywhere or anywhen in the world. The countryside is vaguely British; the people are somewhat American. The structures are certainly anglo-ish, yet they’re given just a bit of whimsy in their crooked roofs and gables. The result is that, rather than being fixed in one time and place, Babe occurs in no particular place at all, and, unassociated with any particular era, it cannot grow old. The only hint at a time period–and this is cute instead of distracting–is the depiction of a fax machine as somewhat new technology. Apart from that, there is no hint of the film’s age.
And then there are the animals. The seamless alternation between CGI and animatronics is impressive, all the more because it was done with circa 1995 technology. The animatronics–created by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop–are downright beautiful, and there is such attention to detail that the viewer will find him or herself with the following internal dialogue: “Is the animal real now? Or is that fake? It’s definitely real. Or is it? It’s real. No, it’s fake.” No CGI can compare to the artistry of an animatronic Babe, just come in from the rain, glistening with raindrops as he learns the heartbreaking truth that humans eat pigs. The animatronics, combined with subtle CGI and very well trained real animals, make it so that the talking creatures in Babe are so believable that they cause the viewer to see them as characters with complex interior lives and not just a gimmick for the kids.
Because Babe is not just for the kids–that’s the third element to its endurance as a good and watchable film. Babe includes jokes only adults would get, of course, but also addresses genuine modern anxieties, like cruelty in the meat industry, assuming that if animals feel and think, how can we justify our treatment of them, and the balance struck between humane treatment and meeting demand and automation of previously manual labor, begging the further question of if we can be replaced by machines, how do we justify our existence. The viewer pities poor orphaned Babe, who suckles at a metal milk dispenser after his mother is taken to be slaughtered, and identifies with Ferdinand, the duck that crows like a rooster, when Mrs. Hoggett buys an alarm clock, making him redundant. Babe manages to be not just a great children’s movie but part of an ongoing conversation.
Other elements add to Babe’s charm, of course, as it has serenading mice, the division into story-advancing chapters, excellent voice acting, top notch scoring by Australian composer Nigel Westlake, and a fabulous solo dance by farmer Hoggett. If it has a flaw, it is that it is perhaps a little hard on cats and wives, but even that is done in a gently teasing way. Simply put, there is no part of the film that does not contribute to its quality, and, obvious though it may seem, there are few films about which that claim can be made. Most have at least one throwaway joke, or a useless line, or a careless prop. In Babe, however, the characters say neither more nor less than what needs to be said, and so it remains a thoroughly enjoyable, thoughtful, and time-irrespective film well worth watching at any age. Babe warmed our hearts and fed our minds in 1995 and can do the same today–the only difference being that now we can stream it instantly through our cable connection.