text by Orlando Morales Carrillo
Do kid’s films have a place in the great film pantheon? When do we ever hear of a not-so-old kids’ film getting called a classic? Yeah, you’re right, almost never. I could count the number of times on my fingers, and I would still have some left.
We all remember Home Alone, Matilda, Hook, Jumanji (those last two starring Robin Williams, kids’ movie MVP). Kids’ films have always been denigrated and thrown in the basement for foolish reasons. Number one sighted: not having the same “depth” or reputation. They are also panned for their lack of known stars, and lack of coherent narrative — typical hallmarks of titles allowed the “Hollywood classic” status. Thank the stars that The Secret Garden, possibly the most famous kids’s classic, was allowed critical acclaim.
Here I want to defend a kids’ film that not only deserves the classic title, but also managed to achieve critical acclaim 25 years ago. It has since faded into our collective memory as being unimportant or kind of dull. I’m talking about Babe (1995), the story of the gallant pig that considered himself a sheep-dog.
I’m talking about Babe, the story of the gallant pig that considered itself a sheep-dog.“
Babe achieved world success in 1995 after it’s Australian release. It’s produced by Australian mastermind George Miller. Yes, THAT George Miller. It’s not easy to reconcile the idea that the creator of the Mad Max franchise is also responsible for bringing talking farm animals to life. But, it is the perfect combination for a classic: a children’s story, a serious production, and state of the art visual effects. It also does not stoop so low as to concentrate on basic violent gags, parental abandonment drama, or action-packed scenes. On the contrary, Babe functions as a very quiet, very discreet, musically subdued piece. It focuses mostly on dialogue and a witty exploration of animal characters in strange situations. The film is all about nature and identity, a study of what an animal is supposed to do… what their purpose is on The Farm (a. k. a. The World). So, what better example could we have of crossing boundaries than what is done here with animals and their supposed mechanical and never-evolving “behavior”?
Let us examine Ferdinand, the duck who believes he’s a rooster. Ferdinand is considered a “problem” by the rest of the animals because of his subversive nature. He is considered a bad example for the rest of the young animals, so their animal parents are always warning about him, as humans do when they see a drunk person on the street. Don’t imagine that this tale is in any form a type of Orwell’s Animal Farm. It’s not politics we are dealing with here, but societal norms, and norms are inherently observational. We tend to learn, as kids, what is right and what is wrong, what is common and what is strange, by looking at how others do things, their behavior.
Babe is a wonderful take on the nature of observation. Observation as a means to transform ourselves. It is a tale of what happens when we start to feel “different” about our physical, mental or existential identity.
Babe is a little pig, whose destiny is to live in blissful ignorance until the day he becomes food, like his siblings or his parents. He is taken away from his mother at an early age, and ends up at Hogget’s farm. This is the beginning of what we can call Babe’s lucky streak. For, you see, one thing we know from the start of the film is that farmer Hogget is a good man.
But that doesn’t mean Babe’s destiny has changed. His mission is still eat, get fat, and one day be consumed. What changes for Babe is all thanks to farmer Hogget’s love for watching his animal’s behavior. He is aware of Ferdinand’s strange rooster antics. His wife tells him the duck needs to be killed and eaten quickly, but Hogget prefers to reflect and observe.
Suddenly, Babe’s behavior is put to the test when he alerts his master about other dogs trying to attack farmer Hogget’s sheep. This is when Hogget starts to catch on to Babe. As he watches Babe sorting hens by color he wonders, could it be possible that Babe is no pig after all? A strange question, especially if you’re a farmer.
The film then turns to its central theme: the labor of a shepherd dog. A sheep dog takes care of the sheep’s security. According to Rex (the most prestigious dog in the farm), it is a hereditary task and an honor delegated by their dog ancestors. There is nothing more doggish than shepherding. The rationale behind this? The sheep themselves! They are the ones that have an impossible character, a nature that only violence and fear can bend. Babe doesn’t buy it.
Farmer Hogget lets Babe give shepherding a shot. This is for no apparent reason, and is one of the most fantastical elements of the film. Fantasy in this story isn’t founded on extraordinary feats or magical abilities but in the mystery of people — and animal’s— decision making. We, ourselves, have no explanation or immediate assessment of the many of the things we do, of the things we are. These animals are an important way of showing how the power of changing ourselves must come from within. From our deepest beliefs, and most inexplicable desires. We are not creatures of pure rational thought.
When Babe begins to show his prowess in the art of shepherding it causes jealousy and resentment in Rex, the most conservative dog. It’s probably the funniest scene in the film. Babe previously befriends the sheep during the neighboring dogs’ attack, at this time he discovers that the sheep are not as stubborn, dumb, or single-minded as Rex and the other animals made him believe. When we see things from the farmer’s point of view all the sheep move around the fences and corrals, following the correct route without Babe doing anything. Babe seemingly just stands there, watching. In reality, Babe had used the magic power of COMMUNICATION.
Animals talking to each other is another element of the fantastic in Babe. It amazes me how easy and subversive this film was for 1995. Its modern animatronics were not used merely for the sake of “wonder”, but actually trying to achieve “realism” out of the communicative and noisy nature of animals. The concept of language is in itself a tricky subject when speaking about animals. Even for humans, speech has been considered “phantasmagorical” since ancient times, its nature not always fully understood, sometimes assigned to a divine interventionary power (as inspiration from god or the muses using us as vessels). Singing was, of course, connected to this power, to the rhythm and spell that words and sounds can produce together.
Animals, in this case, have always been considered excluded from this human privilege, existing as “mute” presences in our world. We only consider them to have a certain instinctive communication, a talk in primordial codes, never fully inhabiting the world of meaning as we do.
Babe begins to manifest it’s artistic efficacy when the inner world of animals, and their interactions, fully manifests and it debunks the idea of them being mere machines of instinct and behavior, predetermined for an empty cyclical life. Instead, they reflect some of the conscious magic that our language provides us. Babe breaks the chains of the rules that traditional attitudes towards animals have created, especially that we might consider them as mere instruments for our own devices. In Babe, animals can have sentience and can escape from their ill-fated destinies.
This arcane secret is evident to farmer Hogget only as he starts loosening his own rationality, and thus starting to tune in to this internal and silent element of the world between living species. Babe is a deeply musical film, and the turning point of the relation between man and pig in this piece is also a musical one. As Farmer Hogget takes care of Babe, one night after Babe falls sick, he watches the pig, and he is aware that Babe is actually looking back at him. For the first time, they are communicating. So, Hogget improvises and decides that he needs to dance for Babe for him to recover. He sings the song If I Had Words, a popular 1970s song adapted from the classical work of Camille Saint-Saens, the Symphony No. 3 in C Minor.
This decision is one of the greatest of this film, as Camille Saint-Saens is known around the world for another famous composition: The Carnival of the Animals (Le Carnaval des Animaux) which is a comical exploration of the animal world through music and leitmotivs (associating certain musical segments with characters). Although it is not part of the score, it is evident that his whole musical work influenced part of the strangeness and curiosity that is intended in this film. Hence, the silence between humans and animals is occupied by music, a universal language.
In a turn of events, Babe ends with the task of participating as the leading “shepherd-dog” in an annual local competition. This event causes uproar among the commission who organized the event… AND Hogget’s wife, who thinks, at this point, her husband is crazy.
The final scenes serve as a closing for the musical opus. The new sheep at the competition seem unable to talk or understand when Babe speaks to them. Hogget’s dogs must help Babe by bringing him a secret verbal “code” that only sheep know among themselves. This forces the dogs to break their own human learned vices and admit to Hogget’s sheep that they must be treated fairly.
In the end, Babe receives the password and recites it to the new sheep. The words act as an incantation that awakens the sheep, as the words indicate to them that Babe is a pig they can trust. So, finally, when Babe leads the sheep peacefully, and perfectly ordered through the field of corrals, the silence of the entire crowd in the stands is immensely powerful and symbolic. The humans are shaken out of speech by the peaceful communion of two species. Two species so seemingly different they were thought incapable of having that kind of relationship.
Humans have always made fun of animals, treating them as inferior, funny looking, dumb, and without a purpose. This scene, a dance of animals silently cooperating and helping themselves, leading themselves to their own ends, is moving and funny in and of itself because of how out of tune (or out of synch) we are with the living world. It is funny to know what we miss by not taking the care, time and attention to listen to the animal’s symphony.
It is also no surprise that Babe was a success. It earned a Best Picture and Best Director nomination at the Academy Awards, beating out Apollo 13 in the visual effects category. A symbolic moment about how the fantastic and infinite inner world of other living beings can be as amazing and technically difficult to recreate as a outer space mission to the moon.
Babe is a film that has remained in our cultural subconscious as “an infantile film about a cute pig”. Many have forgotten the powerful subtexts and philosophical motivations that flow through all its acts, need we be reminded by the little mice who act as the greek chorus of the film? Kids’ stories in ancient times were paramount, especially fables, because of the crystalline messages and morals that they taught. Animals bestowed human characteristics, emotions and personalities.
We used to search for humanity in the living world around us. In our contemporary world, we have forgotten our intuitive connection to other species. Now is a good time to let yourself be once again bewitched by the gaze of childhood, the gaze of animal. Remember that what we look at and how we look, is actually, by ourselves created. We teach ourselves to see, in the same way we teach ourselves to speak. Changing the world means changing points of view. It means unlearning our ways of looking. We must communicate in a new way, something more universal, spellbinding and symphonic.