not in our stars, but in ourselves
29/52: A movie with a non-human lead
Yesterday was the twentieth anniversary of Babe‘s release in theatres, and it’s been a top-ten favorite of mine since the first time I saw it. Then, I was 10 or so; now, I’m nearly 30. It has shaped the way I see the world, myself, other people, and especially animals. There are plenty of movies from my childhood that have had some sort of influence on me, of course, but Babe has led to the development of my own personal core values. Pretty impressive stuff for a movie with talking animals.
Babe opens in a large, industrial pig pen. Hundreds of pigs – mothers and babies – lie in small pens. Once the piglets are old enough, and the mothers are fat enough, men with electric cattle prods shove the mothers onto a truck that will carry them away to be slaughtered; stainless steel milk-dispensing contraptions lower automatically into the pen for the piglets, who continue feeding as if nothing had happened. Except Babe. He’s the smallest of his litter, and he’s deeply saddened by his mother’s departure – even though he, like the rest of the pigs, all believe that she’s gone to “pig paradise” – so he’s an easy target. Two men scoop him up, throw him in a bag, and bring him to a country fair. There, Arthur and Esme Hoggett (James Cromwell and Magda Szubanski, respectively) are well known: she for her prize-winning preserves, and he for his taciturn stoicism. Farmer Hoggett guesses Babe’s weight correctly, and wins the little pig. Back at Hoggett Farm, Babe is taken in by Fly the border collie. Her mate, Rex, doesn’t like that very much – but she assures him it’s just until Babe finds his feet. Babe is slightly mystified by the elaborate rules of his new home – only dogs and cats allowed in the house, no pigs out in the fields with the sheep, roosters involved in turf wars with geese and alarm clocks – but he does his best to adapt. Farmer Hoggett notices that Babe seems to have a unique way with other animals, and indeed he does: where the dogs bark and nip at animals they consider “inferior,” Babe simply asks them nicely to do something, and they oblige him. Such is Farmer Hoggett’s faith in his little sheep-pig that he trains him to compete in a sheep-herding competition. This doesn’t sit well with anyone, least of all the competition’s judges and Esme, but – well, you know. That’ll do, Pig. That’ll do.
This really could be just a silly, sappy kids’ movie. In lesser hands (*cough* Disney *cough*), it surely would have been rendered cloyingly saccharine, oozingly sentimental. Here, it’s useful to remember what Nabokov had to say about sentimental people:
We must distinguish between “sentimental” and “sensitive.” A sentimentalist may be a perfect brute in his free time. A sensitive person is never a cruel person. Sentimental Rousseau, who could weep over a progressive idea, distributed his many natural children through various poorhouses and workhouses and never gave a hoot for them. A sentimental old maid may pamper her parrot and poison her niece. The sentimental politician may remember Mother’s Day and ruthlessly destroy a rival. Stalin loved babies. Lenin sobbed at the opera, especially at the Traviata.
Babe is achingly sensitive, then. There’s not a mean bone in this movie’s body (so to speak). The narrator begins the film by intoning, “This is a tale about an unprejudiced heart, and how it changed our valley forever. There was a time, not so long ago, when pigs were afforded no respect – except by other pigs. They lived their whole lives in a cruel and sunless world.” (Note heartbreaking use of past tense, as if all of this were over and done with. Perhaps in Babe‘s universe, it is.) Babe is certainly unprejudiced, and empathetic, and all too willing to do whatever he can to help others. It often gets him into trouble, since those others are usually all too willing to exploit his good nature for their own personal gain (even if they do it unwittingly), but goodness prevails in the end.
One of the most sophisticated things that Babe does – and again, this is rare in movies ostensibly aimed at kids – is to avoid casting any one person or animal as the villain. There are antagonistic individuals, of course: the cat, some feral dogs, the sheep rustlers, Rex, the judges at the sheep-herding competition. They’re never presented as evil, however. They act according to set conventions, prejudices, ideologies – but no individual invents social (or inter-species) constructs. The other animals on Hoggett Farm, and every human except Farmer Hoggett himself, all seem to accept that those acting in opposition to what they want or expect are wrong and bad and so on. Babe doesn’t see it like that. He figures that everyone is just trying their best, as he is, and all he can do is try to explain why things would be nicer if everyone listened to each other, and tried to help each other out. Is there any “children’s” movie with a better message than that? I can’t think of one. People who do mean things may not be mean people. They may just be acting that way because they are, in some way, hurt and scared. Reacting with hatred and cruelty is never the best way. Be nice to each other. Try to understand. That’ll do.
(It is slightly mind-boggling to think that the co-writer of Babe is none other than George Miller – he of Mad Max fame. However, it all makes sense, considered together: both Babe and Fury Road hold the central message that the world can be pretty sick and sad, but there’s a better way, and it involves kindness and empathy and cooperation.)
Babe has made me who I am. I don’t care how silly that sounds. It’s true. It instilled in me, very early on, the unshakable knowledge that the food presented to me on a daily basis wasn’t just conjured out of thin air or squeezed out of a tube – but the result of a thinking, feeling animal being killed. I used to be vegetarian, and even vegan, before I despaired and gave up (for some reasons I can defend, and others I can’t). I still can’t, and won’t, eat pork. Pigs are smart, affectionate, social little creatures, and I just can’t bring myself to participate in their slaughter. I don’t know if I’m the only one who reacted to the film that way – but I suspect there are quite a few vegetarians of my generation who could trace their turning point back to the first time they saw Babe.
While I’m embarrassing myself, I may as well admit that I cry literally every time I watch Babe. It happened last night. It happened the time before. It will happen the next time. I can’t help it. When poor little soon-to-be-orphaned Babe sniffs, “Goodbye…Mom” at the slaughterhouse, I lose it. When Babe asks Fly if he can call her Mom and she responds by joyously licking his face, and the narrator says that he’s found his place at Hoggett Farm, “and he was happy, even in his dreams,” I lose it. When Farmer Hoggett – gravely concerned that his sheep-pig is too sick to compete – dances a little jig after singing “If I Had Words” (a song that gets its glorious melody from Camille Saint-Saëns’s Symphony No. 3) and then finds that Babe is feeling well enough to snort through his food again, I lose it. And of course, when Babe triumphs at the end, and every human and animal is freaking out, and the sun beams down on Farmer Hoggett and Babe, and Hoggett says, “That’ll do, Pig. That’ll do” – well, goddammit, I’m getting misty just thinking about it.
Babe is wonderful. It moves and delights me more and more, every time I see it, and I can’t imagine what kind of fumbling in philosophical darkness I’d have had to do to figure out who I was without it. Go on and watch it, and see if you can make it through without tearing up. If you do, it’s possible that you’re dead. There’s no other explanation.