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By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 04, 1995


Chris Noonan
James Cromwell;
Magda Szubanski;
Christine Cavanaugh;
Hugo Weaving;
Miriam Margolyes;
Danny Mann
General audience

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A precocious piglet overcomes barnyard prejudices and his place in the food chain to become the world's first championship sheep hog in "Babe," a captivating comic allegory about daring to be different in the face of conformity. With its population of talking beasts and "Animal Farm"-derived themes, the film is aimed at the whole family, but is a must-see for wee Orwellians.

"Babe" was a labor of love for veteran filmmaker George Miller ("Mad Max"), who wrote the screenplay with director Chris Noonan. The story is convincingly told from the animals' perspective; there isn't a hint of condescension toward either the characters or their viewers. Adapted from a popular Australian children's book, "Babe" is warm and wonderfully loony, but it also touches on humankind's appetite for sausage links and roast pork. Many a little meat-eater will turn to Brussels sprouts after witnessing Babe's heart-rending reaction when he learns what really happened to his parents.

Soothingly narrated by Roscoe Lee Browne, the movie unfolds in storybook fashion, complete with chapter headings interpreted for the reading-impaired by a trio of scene-stealing mice. They introduce the plucky pink protagonist, who is orphaned when his mother is suddenly hauled off in a truck; he is then separated from his many siblings. Babe is still crying over the loss when, through a fortuitous series of events, he winds up at the fairy-tale farm of Arthur Hoggett (James Cromwell), a lanky sheep herder who is as taciturn as Babe is gregarious.

Babe and the other animals really do seem to be talking here, thanks to a marvelous combination of animatronic Muppetry, computer wizardry and human actors who give them voices. Christine Cavanaugh gives Babe a high, sweet voice that gives way to giggles and snorts when he is tickled or pleased.

Babe is adopted by patrician border collie Fly (voice of Miriam Margolyes), and though his new mother advises Babe on his proper place in the farm hierarchy, the piglet yearns for more than a rut and a slop-filled trough. He has his heart set on learning to herd sheep like Fly and her husband, Rex. The sheep offer their bahhhhh humbugs, but Babe's unique abilities come to the fore when he saves the Hoggetts' herd from poachers.

After Farmer Hoggett enters him in the upcoming sheep dog championships, Babe practices his technique with dogged persistence. The pressure mounts and Babe looks like he's in big trouble when a flock of strange sheep refuses to obey his polite requests.

Miller picked Noonan to direct the arduous production after the two worked together on a miniseries about Vietnam. Primarily a documentary filmmaker, Noonan has done a masterly job of pulling together this film's disparate elements. He's like a magician with a pig, a duck and a flock of sheep in his hat. But the underlying tricks are never allowed to upstage the story in all its humble sweetness.

Babe is rated G.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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