As a live-action film encroaching on the traditional territory of cartoon, Babe is a curiosity, but a rather successful one. In this animal allegory about a pig who aspires to being a sheepdog, every living thing from horse down to mouse has a voice, and after only a few minutes this seems perfectly natural. Why shouldn't a sheepdog bitch have the warm vocal tones of Miriam Margolyes? Why shouldn't sheep sigh with pleasure at fireworks?
Babe works wonders in particular for the cinematic image of the pig. The central character is a White Yorkshire whose face soon becomes familiar and attractive to us - those large pink ears, that expressive snout, shaped like an inverted heart, with delicate nostrils. It's easy to feel that this piglet has character.
The basic message of the screenplay, adapted by George (Mad Max) Miller and the director, Chris Noonan, from a novel by Dick King-Smith, is that you don't have to accept your fate. Blaze a trail, be who you want to be: this is a tale of farmyard self-empowerment. Yet the didactic message, cannily attuned though it is to an audience weaned on psycho babble, is made more complicated by the live-action form. In a cartoon, it wouldn't seem odd for animal caricatures to be representing different points of view, but in Babe we're constantly being reminded of the physicality of this animal kingdom that is being used to point a human moral.
There may be a moral qualm involved. When you see television advertisements in which, say, cows praise New Zealand grass and the contribution it makes to their lovely butter, or else in the form of angry puppets expressing outrage that you should even consider using a lower-fat spread, do you think this is entertaining, or the last word in carnivore kitsch? There's something lurkingly obscene about our wanting to feel that animals find fulfilment in our use of them. We're still some way from the ideal creature in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the animal that has been bred to enjoy being eaten, and directs you to particularly tender cuts of itself.
It's partly, too, that we have no practice when it comes to being moved, as we can be in Babe, by animal characters. The look of rage and pain in the eyes of a sheepdog when her pups are taken away from her isn't a piece of acting but a technical trick - yet that makes it more haunting, rather than less. By this point in history, what we're most likely to feel when we meet an animal's eyes is bad conscience and a desire to be justified. Guilt has entered into our feelings about nature, even about the virtual nature of animal allegory. We can't live with what we do anymore.
Babe is born in a factory farm. His mother and siblings are doomed pork. Never mind that the factory we see is a thousand times cleaner and more humane than its real-life equivalent. Never mind that the pigs in the factory farm can't wait to grow up and go to heaven. This is still too close for comfort.
Then Babe is taken to a farm, to be raised for the table. The period seems to be an idyllic past, except that there is television and even a fax machine. The farmer and his wife seem grotesque at first; the farm has a look of gingerbread Gothic. Still, Babe's character begins to express itself, and the people aren't positively cruel.
Even in Arcadia, though, there is a slaughterhouse. The duck Ferdinand has worked out that unnecessary animals get eaten, and tries to take over the rooster's function as an alarm call. Perhaps that way they'll eat the rooster. There's a troubling scene where the duck screams, "Dinner means death! Death means carnage! Christmas means carnage!", while Babe in his ignorance happily hums "Jingle Bells".
When Babe learns what happened to his family, it could have been a scene that would put the death of Bambi's mother in the shade for good, and traumatise a generation of children. Luckily, we're distracted by the splendid malice of the cat that gives Babe the bad news, and, in fact, Babe bounces back remarkably quickly. He is more determined than ever to be a sheepdog, and we are not encouraged to notice that this isn't simply a piece of personal growth, but another strategy not to get eaten.
Babe gets off the hook (one of those hooks in the farmer's shed) and so do we. Apparently, what we want is to be forgiven by our food, even redeemed by it. The film has no great faith in human nature - the children we see, in particular, are distinctly bratty - but plenty in animal virtue. But if we no longer believe in our own goodness, it isn't a solution to expect hand-picked mammals to provide us with a warmer reflection. If we're going to go on eating animals, is it fair to expect them to say grace before meals?
Babe is, in its way, a perfect Christmas film, funny and almost too touching. But perhaps you'd better delay a family visit until the New Year, unless you can cope with a suddenly vegetarian household over the festive season. And you might be tactful when you are asked about the pig who played Babe. Nobody really wants to know that there was a sort of factory farm producing photogenic piglets - eight batches of six at intervals over the period of filming, all of them needing to be fitted with Babe's trademark toupee, 48 beasties in all. Nobody wants to know that this character in all its aspiration and vulnerability is itself a cinematic sausage, visual fragments of nearly 50 animals ground together by editing inside the slick skin of an accomplished screenplay.
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