Film & TV

Popcorn and Inspiration: ‘Babe’: A Pig’s Parable About Prejudice

BY Rudolph Lambert Fernandez TIMEFebruary 4, 2023 PRINT

G | 1 h 32 min | Drama, Comedy | 1995

Dick King-Smith’s children’s novel “The Sheep-Pig” inspired director Chris Noonan’s film “Babe.” It’s a tale about prejudice, but told so entertainingly that you might miss its more sober messages.

A kind piglet, Babe (voiced by Christine Cavanaugh) grows up on a farm run by Arthur Hoggett (James Cromwell) and wife Esme (Magda Szubanski), except that neither Babe nor Hoggett is typical. Babe communicates—effectively—with the other farm animals. Hoggett trusts his gut instinct, whereas other farmers rely on convention.

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Arthur Hoggett (James Cromwell) with Babe (voiced by Christine Cavanaugh), in a scene from the film “Babe.” (Universal/Getty Images)

Frankly, little about Noonan’s film is typical.

Babe herds chickens and sheep more easily than Hoggett’s weathered sheepdogs, Fly (voiced by Miriam Margolyes) and Rex (voiced by Hugo Weaving). Then he heals and unites the troubled animal farm.

The brooding, 6-foot-7-inch-tall Cromwell presents a towering and comical contrast to haughtier busybodies, whether they’re officials at the local sheepherding competition or fellow farmers.

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Esme (Magda Szubanski) helps Arthur run the farm, in “Babe.” (Universal Pictures)

He’s nearly two feet taller than Szubanski, and canny makeup helps sufficiently age the then 34-year-old to convincingly play wife to the then 55-year-old. Cavanaugh, whose baby voice breathes life into Babe, was 32 at the time of filming.

If Nigel Westlake’s music is the skeleton holding up the flesh and bones of this film, the theme song “If I Had Words” is its spine, derived from the original 1977 song. That charming tune, armed with a reggae beat in the film, is in turn derived from a melody in Saint-Saëns’s Symphony No. 3 in C minor.

Animal trainer Karl Lewis Miller and team expertly trained some 1,000 animals, including dogs, cats, sheep, horses, cows, and ducks, of which only half ended up on screen. Since pigs grow too fast, he used nearly 50 piglets, in turn, to play Babe. Although Babe is male, most pigs filmed were female.

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Babe talks to the sheep on Hoggett’s farm, in “Babe.” (Universal Pictures)

Trainers had to be next to real animals and not off-camera, which close shots afforded. So, wide and long shots used animatronic pigs. Unsurprisingly, out of seven Oscar nominations, the lone Oscar that “Babe” won was for Visual Effects.

Feelingly, narrator Roscoe Lee Browne fills in gaps in the narrative because the animal characters can’t possibly explain everything, and Hoggett himself hardly talks.

Noonan uses a fax machine (new in the Hoggett home) as a symbol of pathbreaking communication unraveling on the farm. Inside, Hoggett breaks the time-space barrier, faxing his last-minute entry into the sheepherding competition, instantly. Outside, Babe defies convention by herding chickens and sheep almost as easily.

Some Rules Meant to be Broken

At first, Babe’s “unprejudiced heart” recoils at the farm’s divisions (and delusions): pigs that are considered no more than pork servings on the dining table, and dogs that are required to corral sheep because sheep can’t do it themselves.

Soon enough, Babe rejects injustices sold to him as “the way things are.” Instead, he reimagines the way things might be. Hoggett’s farm operates as a kind of microcosm of society. Its lessons?

Individuals, not institutions, must tackle prejudice first. At a time when pigs were shunned, except by other pigs, one animal (Fly) embraces Babe. Only then do others follow. Individuals waiting for institutions to lead the way are missing a trick.

Ignorance, rather than inherent enmity, creates and sustains prejudice. Sheep acknowledge the code of dutiful care that sheepdogs exercise over them only when dogs recognize that sheep aren’t stupid, to be herded by brute force alone.

All rules have reasons, but not all are automatically reasonable. Prejudice, too, is a rule often handed down unchallenged.

Sheepdog Rex imposes rules about who’s allowed to talk to whom, especially when it comes to the outlier, such as the duck who thinks he’s a rooster. Babe defies them; no one, even outliers, should be made to feel worthless or inferior.

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Babe (voiced by Christine Cavanaugh) and Fly (voiced by Miriam Margolyes) live on Hoggett’s farm, in “Babe.” (Universal Pictures)

Babe’s first owner sells him for nothing because he’s a “worthless little runt,” not worth a price tag. As it happens, Babe turns out to be priceless.

When at a fair Hoggett is asked to buy Babe, he reflexively refers to his rule “Don’t keep pigs.” On Babe’s account, he not only breaks that rule but others too: Only cats and dogs are allowed inside the house, and only sheepdogs can herd sheep.

Aging ewe Maa (voiced by Miriam Flynn) tries to impose her stereotypes onto Babe: All “wolves” (actually, sheepdogs) are savages. But Babe makes up his own mind. Some dogs do fit Maa’s stereotype, but Fly’s compassion proves that not all dogs do.

For all her compassion, Fly also succumbs to stereotypes, urging Babe to dominate sheep so they obey. Babe finds that Fly’s bark (and Rex’s bite) alienates. So he decides to stay kind regardless and refuses to prejudge any species unless their behavior is demonstrably mala fide.

Of course, Babe knows that not all species are alike. Inclusion or unity does not, and need not, always mean sameness. Each has a distinct role to play and a distinct style. Only roosters can crow. Only sheep can grow wool. Only horses or cattle can draw large carriages.

And even when he, a pig, miraculously herds sheep, he’ll herd differently from how sheepdogs do.

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Lobby card for “Babe,” the story of a special pig. (MovieStillsMB)

Director: Chris Noonan
Starring: Christine Cavanaugh, James Cromwell, Magda Szubanski
MPAA Rating: G
Running Time: 1 hour, 32 minutes
Release Date: Aug. 4, 1995
Rated: 5 stars out of 5

Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is an independent writer who writes on pop culture. He may be reached at Twitter: @RudolphFernandz
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