Back when I suggested that The Fall might be the most underrated movie of all time, I already knew I’d get around to talking about the competition someday.
There’s a few kinds of statements that’ll get you a weird look, if you’re a movie person. In my experience, claiming the greatness of a movie with the subtitle “Pig in the City,” is one of them.
Which, in a way, is only fair. The film industry, in association with audiences everywhere, has decided that talking animal movies are a kids-only affair. Rocket Raccoon might shake things up later this year, but even he’s carrying a gun around and grabbing his crotch and other super-grownup things. Space raccoons aside, no one in their right would expect a talking animal sequel about a pig traipsing around a city to be worthwhile.
But if ever a movie set out to defy expectations, it was this one.
For starters, Babe: Pig in the City is bold as all hell. The classic original had its share of shadowy corners (I mean, the main threat of the movie is that the main character might get eaten), but it still worked pretty well as an approachable, all-ages good time. It might have turned a few kids vegetarian, but it’s not like it looked headlong into the cynical cancer of opportunism, homelessness, and police brutality.
Nah, they saved that stuff for the sequel. Pig in the City, like Batman Returns or The Empire Strikes Back, followed a fairly family-friendly film with a dark, nightmarish sequel that sent some folks scurrying for the door. No, there’s not a torture scene or a sexually frustrated politician, but we’re in the same ballpark.
The story goes something like this: Farmer Hoggett gets injured, and his wife Esme needs to come up with enough money to keep the farm afloat until he’s on the mend. To do this, she crates up Babe and takes him into the city to enter a sheepherding competition. Things go awry, as they tend to in movie-land.
Babe winds up alone in the city. It doesn’t have a name; it seems to be every city that ever existed all mashed into one big thing. He falls in with three chimps and an orangutan, and discovers that animals aren’t really tolerated in this place. As such, those who can’t call themselves humans are forced to take humiliating or abusive positions; the chimps perform for a creepy clown and later we meet a set of chained-up guard dogs.
Babe, a creature with some measure of innocence and optimism, finds his assumptions about the innate goodness of people aren’t met with friendly smiles. “It’s a dog-eat-dog world,” one of the chimps muses, “and there’s not enough dog to go around.” Sound dark? It really is. One character is nearly drowned. A wheelchair-bound dog is viciously flung from a moving car. Usually in one of these movies, pratfalls are funny, but in Pig in the City people get seriously injured.
Aside from navigating the weird, weirdly threatening storyline, Mad Max director George Miller shoots the absolute bejeezus out of this thing. Pig in the City is a movie in full-on Terry Gilliam mode. Frames are stuffed to the brim with oddities; sequences escalate from ridiculous to truly insane. The climactic “battle” of this movie is something that simply has to be seen to be believed. Here’s a hint: It involves party-crashing, a champagne-glass tower, and inflatable pants.
Know the craziest part, though? The whole movie is played totally, completely straight. Babe: Pig in the City makes no apologies for how childish it looks, or for how bizarre it ultimately winds up being. The closest recent comparison would be something like Speed Racer. In an age of extreme self-awareness, that’s something to be appreciated, or outright celebrated.
All of these things are the makings of a really good movie. What grants the movie masterpiece status, though, is that Pig in the City is really SAYING something. Somehow. Not only that, it’s saying something timeless and valuable. At its core, Pig in the City is the story of how hope can always return to a broken and cynical community, so long as there’s one person who doesn’t allow it to die out completely. Or one pig, rather.
In a way, it’s kind of a messed-up Superman story.
So if you need a relief from kids’ movies with sanded edges, or if you have a thing for visionary fantasy like Brazil or Speed Racer, or even if you just want to see something sincere and uplifting starring a pig, you really oughta check out Babe: Pig in the City. It’s the very definition of a hidden gem — difficult to spot, but boy does it shine.