Zoom and Pan: Babe: Pig in the City
Welcome to Zoom and Pan, Eat Me Daily's food n' film column. Each week, Soleil Ho of Heavy Table tears apart a food-centric movie scene and, with luck, decipher the meaning behind all the food porn. This week: Babe: Pig in the City
More than ten years ago, Babe: Pig in the City (buy it) came and went, and we barely acknowledged its passing. There may be, lodged deep in your memory, an image of a bull terrier grunting, "Whatever the pig says, goes!" You may have had a chance encounter with this film via its televised trailers, but odds are, you haven't seen it. Despite the fact that Gene Siskel famously proclaimed it to be the best film of 1998, the film continues to brood in obscurity.
Though this week's Zoom & Pan discusses a scene from a talking pig movie, it doesn't concern bacon or ham or a slow-roasted, wine-basted barnyard animal. No, my friends, this week we will ponder jellybeans.
A Schizophrenic City
A film professor I know would wryly describe Babe: Pig in the City as "Felliniesque," a term which indicates a similarity to the fantastic and luxuriant visual style of the late Italian director, Federico Fellini. This talking pig film's ambitious art design and camerawork certainly live up to that description, creating the image of a schizophrenic city that exhales menace in its canals, courtrooms, and junkyards. For example: the "city" in which Babe inevitably finds himself lost is simultaneously New York City, Venice, Sydney, Paris, San Francisco, and Moscow stitched together by special effects.
The plot is simple: Babe the pig and Esme Hoggett go to the city, and are separated. There are many extraneous details, but the core of it all lies in what a child would take from it: an overwhelming sense of anxiety over what would happen if he/she were suddenly on his/her own, lost. Pig in the City poses this question by framing it in the easy terms of the wiggly, pink Babe and his fertility goddess of an owner.
Babe's first stop is the Flealands Hotel, where he is separated from Esme. The hotel is improbably filled with animals: curmudgeonly dogs, a cat choir, a family of primates, and a capuchin monkey. Hunger or country boy stupidity drive Babe to join the chimpanzees in search of food, but he ends up as bait for a couple of guard dogs while the chimps secure a giant jar of jellybeans for themselves. When one of the dogs — an unnamed bull terrier — nearly drowns while giving chase, Babe the Jesus Pig is compelled to save his life, and thus initiates a baptism/rebirth sequence that would redeem the dog's character. In return, the dog basically forces the chimpanzee to share the jellybeans.
Upon his return to the hotel, Babe meets a crowd of homeless cats and dogs and hears their stories. A pink poodle tells a creepy story about being "used up" by her owners time and time again; a squeaky-voiced chihuahua delivers an incredible one-liner in Cheezburger: "My human tied me in a bag and throwed me in the water." Confronted by this furry wall of sorrow, Babe attempts to house and feed them all. But all he has are jellybeans, and they're not even his to give.
Runaway Fantasies Gone Wrong
The bull terrier resolves Babe's ambivalence by giving the pig his own spiked collar to symbolize their new alliance. He admits that "a murderous shadow lies hard across my soul," but pledges to serve the pig. The dog enforces a defacto ration line in the hotel, and a slow camera pan down the building's immense stairs highlights the scale and difficulty of their task. Each animal is hand-fed a single jellybean and gruffly told to "thank the pig." A chimpanzee's Ayn-Randian refusal to accept this new order only lasts a second; the dog's barked order quickly extracts a sardonic "Thanks." Babe's rule is assured by a younger chimpanzee, who goes so far as to call him "Your Honor."
What does all of this coercion amount to? In the end, all he's feeding them are jellybeans. They're certainly colorful and sweet, but their total lack of nutritive substance cannot sustain his rainbow coalition of animals. Babe's Country Time Lemonade vision of a just society is all naivete, his hopes for peace shattered by the pettiness of his subjects and the crushing force of the municipal Animal Control, which round up and cage the animals in a subsequent scene.
The lesson to the child viewer is right here, in all of its dark, dark glory. It's every child's runaway fantasy gone terribly wrong, and the adults in the audience can wearily acknowledge its truth. No matter how far you run or how much fun you may have, it will all end. You will grow up, you will see death, you will go hungry. The cops may throw you into a net and put you in a cage. Though the film ends happily, with everyone from the city settling on the pastoral paradise of the Hoggetts' farm, the darkness settles in and incubates. The child will eat his/her jellybeans, knowing that they will eventually run out.