Squeals of Delight

BABE: PIG IN THE CITY
Co-written and directed by George Miller

A brave movie for a brave pig, the second of Babe's excellent adventures takes significant risks with the franchise -- not only placing the charming porker in a dizzying succession of tight spots, which we'd rightly expect, but also moving the narrative from the bucolic farmlands of the original to the sinister environs of the Ur-city, a fantastic megalopolis that incorporates the significant landmarks of the world's major capitals and fulfills the nightmarish urban expectations of even the most paranoid ruralist. The dark turn Babe: Pig in the City takes is entirely in keeping with the direction of the first film -- Mrs. Hoggett (Magda Szubanski), after all, regularly butchered the livestock, threatening Babe himself and earning her the sobriquet "serial murderer" from Ferdinand the duck -- but co-writer/director George Miller drives the movie forward with the same relentless fury of his hyperkinetic Road Warrior, and the pathetic souls and predatory creeps whom Babe encounters on his journey have a cuttingly realistic edge.

The story essentially begins with Farmer Hoggett (James Cromwell) taking a terrifying, Wile E. Coyote-esque header into a well, an accident precipitated by the helpful but hapless Babe; his incapacity in turn plunges the farm into debt, and potential forfeiture looms. Grim from the getaway, Babe: Pig in the City only grows more harrowing when Mrs. Hoggett accepts a lucrative, farm-saving offer and takes Babe the sheep-pig to a fair for a demonstration of his vaunted herding prowess. Salvation is not so easily attained, however: Detained as a potential drug smuggler -- and subjected to a full body-cavity search! -- Mrs. Hoggett misses her connecting flight and finds herself stranded in the distinctly unwelcoming city. Although they find temporary sanctuary in a animal-friendly hotel, she and Babe are soon separated, with both facing a daunting array of obstacles to hurdle before their hoped-for reunion and return to the countryside.

In addition to its headlong pace and scarifying plot, Babe: Pig in the City moves further into unmapped territory by introducing new characters rather than simply revisiting old friends: Farmer Hoggett, Fly and Rex are reduced to little more than cameos, and even sidekick Ferdinand is forced to the film's margins. But the movie scarcely misses them, vastly expanding Mrs. Hoggett's role -- with Szubanski gamely enduring a gauntlet of cartoonish misfortune -- and providing opportunity to more than a half-dozen fresh cast members, including the hotel's zoophilic landlady (Mary Stein), a quartet of primates (chimp couple Bob and Zootie, mischievous Capuchin monkey Easy and grandly reserved orangutan Thelonious), an ill-used poodle, an undaunted paraplegic dog and an insistently protective English bull terrier. The chimpanzees, although winningly voiced by Glenne Headly and Steven Wright, receive a disproportionate share of screen time -- and their clown owner, Fugly Floom (a mugging, desperately unfunny Mickey Rooney), cannot be dispatched too quickly -- but most of the new critters prove satisfying additions. Nor are old-timers entirely slighted: The mouse Greek chorus makes a welcome return, inimitably warbling Edith Piaf and Elvis; Roscoe Lee Browne narrates with his usual warmth; and Babe, though now voiced by E.G. Daily, is his plucky, irresistibly lovable self.

Kids with a low terror threshold might find Babe: Pig in the City a heart-accelerating fright, but the real-world issues that produce the worst of those anxieties make the film a must-see for both adults and children. Miller and co-writers Judy Morris and Mark Lamprell slyly insert references to a wide spectrum of animal-rights concerns -- exposing society's benighted attitude toward pets as casually disposable objects, implicitly endorsing vegetarianism, condemning animal experimentation -- but whether you embrace or reject those views, Babe: Pig in the City teaches valuable lessons in compassion and cooperation (both inter- and intraspecies) that unfortunately require constant reinforcement. And when a film educates with such wildly entertaining brio, even the most stone-hearted and cynical among us are compelled to admit, "That'll do, pig. That'll do."

-- Cliff Froehlich

SLAM
Co-written and directed by Marc Levin

For years, media has had a field day exploiting and sensationalizing the "tough hood/drugs/violence/prison" trajectory, providing inconsequential insights while soft-pedaling social responsibility. Moreover, rarely do any narratives champion the liberating emotional release or the intellectual thrill that artistic creativity offers, especially in a bleak sociopolitical environment -- until Slam. Celebrating talent and holding out hope, director/co-writer/producer Marc Levin rejects ghetto cliches in favor of individuals who must find the courage to confront their own responsibilities and opportunities within a violent milieu. It can be as frightening to put your ego on the line as your life. Until now, we haven't seen or felt or heard a young black man's story told in quite this fashion.

After the film establishes Ray Joshua's charged personality and depressed neighborhood, events thrust Ray into the middle of a shooting in the tough Washington, D.C., housing project appropriately called Dodge City. The police arrest Ray for possession of 4 ounces of marijuana, thereby plunging him into the dispiriting morass of the capital's judicial system. Through a volatile relationship with writing teacher/love interest Lauren Bell, Ray finds his rap-poetry a refuge for his mind and a protection for his body in some tense prison scenes as two gangs compete for Ray's allegiance and square off against each other.

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