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New Pork, New Pork

A sequel to "Babe" flops at the b.o. and costs a studio head his job -- what do they know? Mixing among the pit bulls in Manhattan, Babe triumphs hammily.

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The advance word on Babe: Pig in the City was that it was "problematic" -- studiospeak for uncommercial. Its benefit premiere in Los Angeles had been canceled amid dire rumors that the picture was too scary, too loud, too violent, too everything. This piqued my interest. Babe II: Dark Meat -- what a concept! The first Babe was such a transcendently charming experience that redoing it wouldn't have worked anyway; it would be like trying to be a virgin again. Better to shake things up.

As it turns out, the new Babe isn't the horror show that was rumored. But it's certainly more raucous and rough-edged than the original. Arguably, it's even better. George Miller, the co-producer and co-writer of Babe, has directed and co-scripted the sequel, and his Mad Max dark roots are showing. The set pieces have a hearty grotesqueness, and the action is full-throttle. The film's showcase sequence is an extended chase in which the wee pig is pursued by a pit bull, and it has as much vroom as anything in The Road Warrior. I can understand why the executives at Universal were concerned: This sort of thing doesn't bode well for the franchise. So what? Babe: Pig in the City is every bit as funny as its predecessor, but it's funny in a screwier, twistier way.

By bringing the pig into the urban hell of strays and pet impounders, Miller -- with his co-writers, Judy Morris and Mark Lamprell, and his animal trainers and animatronic experts -- opens up a brave new world. Babe is the country rube in the big city, but he's also the rube as holy fool. By the film's end, his goodness triumphs over the Gotham grunge. ("I'm just a pig on a mission," he says.) In Babe, he was a leader of sheep. Now he's a leader of men -- and ducks, chimps, poodles, even pit bulls. His innocence proves cast-iron.

Babe is first brought to the city by Farmer Hoggett's ovoid wife, Esme (Magda Szubanski), in a botched plan to feature him in a fair and use the fee to stave off the farm's foreclosure. They end up residents in a four-story rooming house -- the Flealands Hotel -- catering to pets. From its attic lookout, Babe surveys the skyline -- it's the shot used in ads for the film -- and sees a scrunched mélange of Manhattan, Hong Kong, Hollywood, Paris. It's an intimidating vista. By contrast, the rooming house is a romper-room oasis. The rickety, dark-toned majesty of the place suits its denizens, including the courtly orangutan Thelonius; Bob the hepcat chimp and his wife, Zootie, and brother, Easy; and, among other squallers and squawkers, a Neapolitan mastiff, an English bulldog, and a fleet-fingered capuchin monkey. If Charles Dickens had created a bestiary, it might have resembled this one: It's positively jovial with oddity.

Miller doesn't ask us to recognize the humanness of these critters. He doesn't go in for a lot of goopy anthropomorphism. Instead, he exults in his menagerie's animalness. In Babe: Pig in the City, being an animal is the highest station in life. The people we see -- not just the porcine Esme but also her flamingo-thin husband, Farmer Hoggett (James Cromwell), and the rooming-house landlady (Mary Stein), with her whippet profile, and the chipmunk-cheeked clown Fugly Floom (Mickey Rooney) -- haven't quite achieved the full-fledged look of their bestial counterparts. They're honorary members of the club, animals-in-transition.

The film is full of exemplary gestures, like the way Thelonius attempts to save his goldfish friend from marauding animal impounders without thinking to save himself; or the pelican who transports the wisequacking Ferdinand the duck in his bill before releasing him high above the city with the words "Farewell, noble duck." Flealick the arthritic terrier spins out in a chase and has an enchanted, end-of-life reverie in which he leaps loose-limbed at butterflies. And then there's Babe's finest moment, when he suddenly wheels around in that pit-bull chase and calmly asks his pursuer: "One simple question. Why?"

Babe doesn't comprehend why animals -- or people -- self-destructively play out their natures. The pit bull clues him in: "I have a professional obligation to be malicious." And yet, when Babe's generosity redeems his attacker, it's as if all of evolution had suddenly been overruled. Babe brings together dogs and cats, pink poodles and pit bulls. Kids barred from this movie by wary parents are missing out on a helluva role model.

Still, I don't want to overstate the film's goody-goodyness. Babe: Pig in the City is no Gandhi. It's also not an archetypal quest. In interviews, Miller has attempted to frame Babe as a mythic hero à la Joseph Campbell and all that jazz. But this is not at all how we experience the porker. (Miller blabbed the same line when he made the Mad Max movies, and Lorenzo's Oil, too. He's got myth-on-the-mind.) If the new Babe should be compared to anything, it's to those epic questers the Marx Brothers. Whether he admits it or not, Miller is a gonzo first and an educator second -- a distant second. His new film is too spirited to be instructional. It's all over the place. At times it seems to summon up the whole history of show business, from fleabag vaudeville animal-novelty acts to the latest in animatronic whoop-de-doo. The animals are like the apotheosis of all the performing pets we've ever seen in the movies; each one is a stunner, and because they can talk, they're more vivid -- and, for that reason, a bit more nightmarish too. They assume personalities that remind us of everybody from mafiosi to the Beats, and the shock is in how easily we buy the transformation. After a while, there's no dissonance at all: The alternate universe has become the real universe.

Miller loves the clangor of butting high culture with low. It's no accident that the hollywood sign sits across from the Eiffel Tower in his skyline. Once again, as in the original Babe, he mixes in music from Saint-Saëns's Third Symphony -- and it has never sounded better than when it's being trilled by singing mice. Elvis and Edith Piaf are similarly mouseketeered. He has the film's narrator say: "You can't always put things back together, but sometimes you can look at things afresh," and that's what he's done here. He's bid a frenzied farewell to the old Babe and given us a delirious new joyride.


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