Take Two: ‘Babe’ is still bah-ram-beautiful 20 years later

04.08.15 4 years ago

I saw “Babe” 20 years ago when I was nine, and aside from the fact that it was a movie my grandparents tolerated, here's everything I remembered about it: 

-The mice were cute.

-Christine Cavanaugh, the late voice artist behind Chuckie on “Rugrats” and Dexter on “Dexter's Laboratory,” voiced “Babe.” 

-It was nominated for Best Picture and Cavanaugh carried a pig-shaped purse to the Oscars. This was, of course, the beginning of my certifiable obsession with the Oscars. 

-I was so, so embarrassed and sad at the part where the farmer's granddaughter hates the dollhouse she gets for Christmas. I wanted to reach out to Farmer Hoggett and say, “She's being a brat. I hope you know that, and I hope your feelings aren't hurt.” Damn, remember when you'd evaluate kids in movies as your peers?

-James Cromwell's face was a long, solemn, Easter Island-type granite block.

Strangely, re-watching “Babe” felt like the last time I revisited “Clueless,” another gem from 1995. I was surprised to discover that both were only 90 minutes, that nearly every scene had a funny or sweet takeaway, and there is not a word wasted in both movies. I don't know when comedies decided to be evocative 150-minute mood pieces (Looking at you, Apatow), but a major reason why both of these movies hold up is their slick runtime. 

I decided to watch “Babe” again because at the time of its release, that movie had a cutesy stranglehold on the emotions of every adult I knew. While I certainly enjoyed “Babe,” I couldn't pinpoint the x-factor. Why didn't every adult connect with Wednesday Addams' sardonic wisdom in “Addams Family Values”? Where was the outsize appreciation for the fat camp camaraderie in “Heavyweights”? Surely there were grownups who could love Kylie Minogue suplexing a seven-foot-tall Thai warrior in “Street Fighter.” I wanted the legacy to add up.

Well, OK, turns out here's what absolutely rules about “Babe.”

-The mice are indeed cute.

-Love the quiet, confident integrity of Fly, the border collie who decides to mentor Babe. This dog is giving you Sassy-in-“Homeward Bound” coolness and Charlotte-in-“Charlotte's Web” worldliness. That's right, we're talking about a dog with the gravitas of Sally Field and Debbie Reynolds. 

-There are actually a couple of characters who parallel “Charlotte's Web” denizens. Maa the sheep is an update of the brazen, plucky goose voiced by Agnes Moorehead. Ferdinand the duck is the rambunctious (if not as sneering) Templeton, the rat voiced by Paul Lynde. 

-Killer narration by Roscoe Lee Browne. Forgot all about the A. A. Milne vibe of this movie. 

-The centerpiece of the film is Christine Cavanaugh's extraordinary performance. I feel like I can't get through a conversation with another 28-year-old without discussing the merits of '90s Nicktoons, but that era was a true golden age for voice artists. You had Christine Cavanaugh's delicate scratchiness, Tress MacNeille's alpha-female comedy as Dot on “Animaniacs” and Babs on “Tiny Toons,” and Billy West's ear-popping work as Ren, Stimpy, and Doug Funnie. In “Babe,” Cavanaugh conveys pollyanna charm and nervous confidence. If Cromwell could scare up a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his charismatic work, surely Cavanaugh could've garnered the same.

-My God, it is heart-stoppingly cute when Farmer Hoggett sings that “If I Had Words” jingle to Babe. Babe is a small naive pig who counts on kindness to make his way in the world, and how is he repaid? An introverted farmer explodes with gorgeous balladry at him. Now I feel like being a nice pig.

-Hoggett's granddaughter is not nearly as embarrassing as I remember. Hoggett himself even snickers at her tantrum! Why was I so defensive about the integrity of children everywhere?

-The best scenes in the film give us dialogue between the dogs and sheep, who misunderstand each other and learn to communicate respectfully. “Fly decided to speak very slowly, for it was a cold fact of nature that sheep were stupid,” the narrator says, “and there was nothing that could convince her otherwise.” The narrator adds a moment later: “The sheep decided to speak very slowly, for it was a cold fact of nature that wolves were ignorant, and there was nothing that could convince them otherwise.” Observational and droll!

-Mrs. Hoggett's range of facial expressions is staggering. She might be the pinkest, perkiest woman of all time.

-And finally: The camp glamor of Babe's confrontation with the sinister house cat Duchess, who tells Babe he's going to be delicious. “Well, the cow's here to be milked, the dogs are here to help the Boss's husband with the sheep,” she purrs. “And I'm here to be beautiful and affectionate to the Boss.” True queen.

It's as light and uplifting as you want it to be. You'll be thrilled that it's smart and relieved it's short, just like any good grandparent.

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