Whether you think Babe: Pig in the City is, as advance chatter has had it, too dark and grim for the kiddies depends on your definition of dark and your understanding of the tenderhearts who may be accompanying you to the theater. Farmer Hoggett (James Cromwell) suffering a horrifying, near-fatal accident inadvertently caused by the cute, wittle, pink piggy of the title, minutes into the story? Mrs. Hoggett (Magda Szubanski) strip-searched for drugs by airport security personnel? Mickey Rooney in scary clown gear, visiting a hospital ward full of wan, desperately sick children — some bandaged, others bald? The hospital ward catching fire? An arthritic pooch with little wheels propping up his useless hind legs? A dog hanging upside down in a canal, limp and drowning for a very long time? A room full of pathetically hungry kitties?

I guess that’s dark; some kids may cringe with anxiety. But Pig in the City is also brilliant. So, you know what? Don’t take anyone you think will mewl — and don’t miss this astonishingly bleak, inventive, funny, sumptuously designed film. It’s a daring, teeth-gleaming departure from the pastoral temperament of the original Babe — more Mad Max than la la la, with a hot blast of Terry Gilliam-style mischief thrown in. It’s by turns angry, giddy, sadistic, and despairing — natural emotions for the change of venue from the idyllic protectiveness of the countryside to the mix-’em-up excitement of urban life. And it moves like a hospital ward on fire, propelled by the singular sensibility of Australian director, cowriter, and producer George ”Road Warrior” Miller.

To paraphrase Monty Python on the Piranha Brothers: It’s cruel — but fair.

At last glance, remember, Babe had won the top sheepherding award in the country (and Babe director Chris Noonan had established an enchanting sense of inter-animal communication). Since then, the Hoggetts have been swamped with publicity offers — the smarm that follows celebrity as sure as roosters crow. But although they have regularly been turning down said offers, they’re forced to reconsider: Hoggett’s accident has resulted in near bankruptcy, and mean men in suits (risk-averse studio executives, maybe?) come and threaten to repossess the homestead. Mrs. Hoggett leaves the farm with Babe strictly to pay the mortgage by cashing in on the award-winning porker’s fame. What else could she do?

But the aforementioned strip search makes her miss their travel connection, and the city is brutal — a modern Thunderdome cosmopolis of hard, bikinied women; leering motorcycle punks; bold-faced purse snatchers; and militaristic cops. All Mrs. H wants to do is get home. Meanwhile, she checks into the only hotel that will allow Babe to check in, too. From their window, they can see a skyline that crowds the Eiffel Tower, the World Trade Center, the Sydney Opera House, and a jumble of other famous international sights into one great Red Grooms canvas.

Indeed, the hotel is overrun with many city-smart species. Dogs have established their own society. Cats practice in a choir behind closed doors. (Babe‘s three crowd-pleasing, singing rodents are horrified to hear a fully harmonized feline chorus of ”Three Blind Mice.” Still, the three sighted mice are not too panicked to sing selections from Edith Piaf, Dean Martin, and Elvis Presley along the way.) A family of chimps look on balefully, two of them voiced with verve by Glenne Headly and Steven Wright. A capuchin monkey swings from floor to floor.

The lessons Babe learns in the city — and that he teaches to his new friends — are that kindness matters; bravery helps, even if you’re frightened; plus, bad things sometimes happen to good animals. (The first Babe was, don’t forget, equally sardonic and doleful: Animals were slaughtered and eaten regularly.)

But Pig in the City can also be read as a metaphor for filmmaking and stardom itself. Three years ago Babe snuck in unannounced during the summer moviegoing doldrums — practically no tie-in merchandise prepared, no promotional plans for what became an Academy Award-winning hit — and human bosses said, ”That’ll do, Pig. That’ll do.” Offers followed to do the equivalent of trotting around at livestock fairs. Challenged to top the first feat and bring home the bacon once again, George Miller (who cowrote and produced the original) went to town. Huge budget. ”Difficult,” expressionist story idea. Complicated special effects, involving unpredictable animals and finicky technical feats. Wild chase to make the delivery date. Various feelings hurt, trampled, shocked along the way.

This Pig in the City prevails. Babe stays nice, but he fights when fighting is called for. He makes a friend of an enemy pit bull; he convinces an isolationist orangutan to pitch in. His song of la la la will still make softies smile, but it’s Babe’s understanding of the dark side of the force that makes this fable sing. A-

Babe: Pig in the City
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