By now it’s common knowledge that Babe: Pig in the City, the sequel to the 1995 sleeper hit, went to market last Thanksgiving and got trampled. Never mind the glowing reviews. Within weeks the box office shortfall was being seared into the poor creature’s carcass like an inspector’s stamp on a rejected pork roast: Original cost, nearly $100 million. Final U.S. gross, $18 million. The mere recitation of the figures conjures the sound of doors slamming in Universal’s corridors. Babe 3? Forget it! We’ll never serve ham in this town again.

Since movie publicity now works a lot like a political campaign — falter in the polls and your funding instantly collapses — it’s hard for a theatrical misfire to shake off the stink of flopsweat when it comes to video. Universal is, by many reports, spending big to try to reverse that tide with an ad blitz for the VHS and DVD release of Babe: Pig in the City. We’re not inclined to cheer marketers’ attempts to force-feed you anything, but if ever a movie deserved to rally in the home arena, it’s this one.

Not that parents who kept young kids away from theaters in droves were far wrong. Despite a G rating, Pig in the City doesn’t have a ”general audiences” vibe. It’s more like Brazil meets Candide with talking animals. How could it be otherwise in director-cowriter George Miller’s restless hands? After helming all those ultraviolent Mad Max movies, Miller produced and cowrote the first Babe (Chris Noonan directed it). He then stepped in as director himself for Pig in the City, and he puts quite a choke hold on his team of animal performers (don’t freak out and call the ASPCA — we just mean it metaphorically).

If you loved the bucolic rural scenery in the first Babe, you won’t see much of it here. Almost immediately, a nasty accident sidelines Farmer Hoggett (James Cromwell). So off goes Mrs. Hoggett (Magda Szubanski) in search of celebrity-appearance money and one mishap after another leads her, with pig in tow, to the very mean streets of a fictional polyglot city that’s got skyscrapers like New York, canals like Venice, and downtrodden, sometimes dangerous residents like Calcutta.

It’s here that Pig in the City flowers into a brilliant, Dickensian survey of the sad, shabby side of urban life — and ran into so much trouble with those who expected it to be a ”kiddie” flick, which it is not. The imagery has the sweaty, in-your-face feel of a fever dream. The camera lenses grotesquely distort all the close-ups, so when bad seeds lurch toward you in point-of-view shots — rude policemen, snooty chefs, misguided security guards intent on strip-searching poor, unwitting Mrs. Hoggett — the mean noses and clenched fists look like they’ll burst through the screen.

Once Mrs. H. gets separated from her prizewinning hog, the film becomes a goofy gloss on The Out-of-Towners. Whatever can go wrong does — including Babe being chased by one very scary pit bull who nearly drowns himself trying to attack the poor pig — until pet and mistress are reunited in a chaotic climax of borderline-alarming slapstick involving inflatable clown pants, falling babies, and lots of society types landing in cakes.

Will parts of this anxious scenario ruffle a preschooler’s feathers? Almost certainly — but so will Bambi and Pinocchio and The Lion King. The good news is, the assaultive, fish-eyed look of the scenes is far less overwhelming on TV than in theaters. And what the grapevine never got around to conveying is that most of Pig in the City is charming and hilarious. The strange hotel where Babe stays is home to animals matched superbly to voice-over actors, including Glenne Headly as a bubble-gum-chewing female chimp who’s never seen a pig before (she calls Babe ”kind of a baldy, pinky, whitey thingy”) and, even funnier, deadpan comic Steven Wright as her slovenly spouse, who speaks a pidgin, malaprop-filled version of English.

As I watched hapless Babe cause a peck of trouble before putting things right, I was struck by how much the story line in the movie is like what happened to the movie: A cruel, hard world continually confounds good intentions. George Miller certainly put a bit too adult a sheen on a movie that he must have known would arrive swaddled in kiddie-movie clothing. But why couldn’t the cold reception that met his Babe sequel have landed instead on a vile, soulless piece of junk like, say, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, which plunked Macaulay Culkin down in Manhattan to numbing effect? As narrator Roscoe Lee Browne intones early in the story, ”Fate, dear ones, turns on a moment.” In a flash, it turned against Pig in the City, most undeservedly. Give the second, almost certainly last Babe a chance to brighten — and darken — your home, and you’ll be steering ugly happenstance to a better place. A-

Babe: Pig in the City
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