Twenty Years Hence: Babe

But 1995 was not merely a year for corporate excess and nihilism crawling out from the woodworks; it was also a year of magic and wonder, and a childlike work of supreme, effervescent joy the likes of which cinema had long forgotten…

Most reviews of Babe focus almost exclusively on some aspect of cinema related to maturity, championing Chris Noonan and George Miller’s 1995 childhood fable for its maturity relative to other movies “for children”. They posit, essentially, that it works for “adults” as well. A fine point, but it also misses quite a bit more than it hits. For Babe is a lovely film for adults, yes, but that could not be the case if it were not so wholly committed to being a children’s film to begin with. What is more germane, I think, is that is a rare breed of children’s film, a work which takes children as its subject rather than its object, and sees the world from the perspective of a child without seeking to reveal some layer of ironic detachment or self-serious maturity to comment on and critique this child’s mind. It is, instead, wholly dedicated to the emotional dream-logic of children, and for precisely this reason, it exists at a right angle to just about everything you can find in the film world this side of 1939.

Thus, Babe is an altogether beguiling little dreamer, equal parts candy-coated confection and lightly serpentine postmodern storybook exploration in fluffball airs. On the surface, it’s just “ a pig on a farm”, but Babe elevates this idea to its most effervescent dramatic heights, filled with brazen, direct emotions played completely straight. It’s a beautifully distilled charmer buttoned up in childhood emotion, storybook razzle-dazzle, and hugely satisfying classic cinema that go far beyond embellishments and into the fundamental narrative drive of the product.

Speaking of narrative, there really isn’t one. Quite literally, it is “a pig on a farm”, non-narrative in the most direct possible sense. There are literal title cards straight out of 1910s silent cinema to break up the episodes that begin and conclude almost like a dream, favoring emotion over logic, and the flow follows through. There are linkages sure, but they are not linkages of event but character. Babe the pig develops an interest in shepherding sheep, and owner Farmer Hoggett’s (James Cromwell) two sheepdogs can’t but react, the husband going angry with egotist super-importance and self-superiority and the wife more perplexed and torn. Inter-species conflict is elevated to theater-of-the-gods.

But the tone is not one of narrative momentum; it is, in fact, an archly lazy film in the best possible sense, slowly meandering about to capture the little details of everyday experience laid out before us. It is such an unhurried film, so low-key and genial and happy in its very existence that it can’t but mill around in the feel of the day for a little while longer. It never insists on a thing, with quite a few moments that actually leave quite a bit left untold. It’s very much a “slice of life”, asking a shocking amount from viewers for a children’s film, never feeling the need to “tell” us something it doesn’t need to. It’s a remarkably confident little film, letting us unlock its mysteries even as everything is placed right up and center for us to accept without question. Things do not so much happen as pass by before us, sweeping us under their current and gently easing us along a never-ending path of pleasing melodrama.

Melodrama it is by the way, some of the finest, heaving melodrama you’ll find in such a crowd-pleasing drama since perhaps the 1930s. Which is not a coincidence, by the way; the whole product is rather self-consciously designed as a loving recreation of classic cinema sensibilities more than a “reality”, defining emotion as something given to us by the movies and ready to please us in the ways only the movies can … by whisking us away into the world of our dreams. Visually, the farm is a gushing ode to the storybook fakery and primary colored, soft hues of classic technicolor cinema. Elsewhere, the connection between classic cinema and storybook aesthetic goes deeper in light of the film’s numerous, eager insert shots, gussied up with some avuncular, comforting narration that sends us off to sleep with the film in the most dreamy possible manner. If I need to make it even more obvious: episodes close with camera irises that bottle-up the preceding imagery for us, the film literally using perhaps the most obvious silent film technique to stunningly pinpoint effect by closing off the segments explicitly and creating a film that doesn’t so much call attention to its storybook aesthetic to comment on it as it does to indulge with it and to love it. Babe proves the worth of classic storybook cinema for a modern era that forgot the magic of “going to the movies” long ago  (it is amusing to review Babe immediately after Seven from the same year in this regard, for although both are as tonally dissonant as humanly possible, both share the 1995 spirit of returning to long lost cinemas of the past to provide inspiration for the future).

Toward the end of the film, a climax of sorts develops, but even then the film breaks from convention. If it uses thriller-style editing to elevate the tension beyond a point the film had even hinted at theretofore, the grandiose musical stylings we might suspect are cut off, drowning everything in silence in yet another eager, proudly confident gesture of restful quiet. It says “look at my images, look at me hold your attention even as I cut away the melodrama and just exist”. It’s almost a study in contrast, but the whole product is too sincere to truly try for any subversiveness or danger.

The thing is though, when films of such sincerity and simplicity and almost mythical candor are so rare, when films are so invested in irony at the expense of anything remotely genuine, a film like Babe that is all of these sincere things and more is nothing short of dangerous, and quite so at that. It just doesn’t feel like a modern film; it feels like a great lost work from eighty years prior that was just unearthed and discovered for a new age. And thus we return to “beguiling”, because the finished product is altogether beguiling, the kind of film host to cheerful surface-level wonders and old-school melodrama that ought to have no place in a cynical, modern world. Perhaps precisely for this reason, it not only works, but it’s positively sublime.

Score: 9/10


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