Deservedly acclaimed as one of 1998's best films, this sequel to the beloved 1995 live-action fantasy proved a commercial catastrophe and a source of dismay to parents expecting another bucolic, sweet-natured fable. Every bit as sly and visually stunning as its predecessor, Babe: Pig in the City
is otherwise a jolting ride beyond the Hoggetts' farm into a no less vivid but far darker world--the allegorical city of the title, which for the diminutive "sheep pig" proves truly nightmarish. Australian filmmaker George Miller (Mad Max
, The Road Warrior
), who produced and cowrote the first film, this time takes the director's reins, and he ratchets up the pace and the peril as effectively as he did on his influential trilogy of apocalyptic, outback sci-fi thrillers.
From the opening scene, Babe: Pig in the City means to disrupt the reassuring calm achieved by the conclusion of the previous film. Babe's prior triumph proves short-lived, and within moments Miller has us literally peering into the depths as he sets up a horrific well accident that nearly kills the taciturn but good-hearted Farmer Hoggett (James Cromwell), Babe's beloved "Boss." Journeying with the equally pink, even plumper Mrs. Hoggett (Magda Szubanski), the young pig finds himself in a city where animals are outcasts, staying in the lone hotel that allows pets. When Mrs. Hoggett is detained, Babe must contend with the suspicions and rivalries of the hotel's other four-legged guests. The film's G status doesn't fully telegraph the shock Miller induces: bad things happen to good animals, and Babe's new acquaintances are a far cry from his colleagues on the farm. In particular, he must contend with a cynical family of chimps given wonderful, dead-pan voice characterizations by Steven Wright and Glenne Headly.
Miller's use of effects to transform his animals into "actors" is even more seamlessly integrated than in Babe. The sequel's production design is crucial to the creation of a complete, absorbing world, and purely visual ideas--such as a deluge of blue balloons during the climactic ballroom battle--achieve a splendor and originality that a room full of computer-graphics desktops couldn't muster. Ultimately, though, the film does more than amaze: as Babe's compassion and courage transform those around him, we're moved in ways that purveyors of by-the-numbers family fare can only dream of. --Sam Sutherland