By Jared M. Gordon
Babe – 1995 – dir. Chris Noonan
Babe was a surprise nomination at the 1996 Academy Awards, although it shouldn’t have been a surprise at all. James Cromwell, who played Farmer Arthur Hoggett, barely has a dozen lines in the entire film (171 words of spoken dialogue, and 61 words that were sung, according to IMDb), and yet was nominated for best supporting actor. What’s so great about a film with singing barnyard animals?
A lot. Babe is a coming of age tale in which the character who comes of age happens to be a compassionate pig who can’t help but spread the compassion around. The fact that no one thinks much of him at first becomes an asset, as we see him saved from becoming bacon due to being a “worthless little runt.”
But Farmer Hoggett, at first ambivalent of the new addition to his barnyard, has more in common with Babe than he thinks. He has an eye for talent, and is a deliberate, patient man. He possesses the qualities of a gentle leader, which, not coincidentally, Babe himself develops, in time.
Babe is a film about communication and understanding through language. Fly is surprised when Babe first addresses her. The sheep have a special, sacred code amongst themselves. Ferdinand the anorexic duck is loquacious to a fault. The mice sing. Rex can barely understand the spoken word, being nearly deaf. It’s a barnyard where hierarchy is everything: every denizen has a duty and a place that could not exist without the web of every other creature in the web. Despite this, every major animal clique seems to possess a hearty disdain for those above and/or below them in the chain. Babe is the first among them who is able to see them as Farmer Hoggett does: equal and necessary.
Of particular (and subtle) humor is the fact that every animal except for the cat calls Farmer Hoggett “boss.” The cat calls him “the boss’s husband.” Farmer Hoggett is a gentle master, and the animals are ultimately far more concerned with their own interspecies squabbles than they are with him. The occasional holiday sacrifice of a duck, chicken, or pig? Well, that’s just the way things are.
Of course, for all that Babe learns and overcomes, he’s still a child. He’s curious. He sings, plays, and lands in trouble far over his head. However, he possesses distinct advantages. He comes from a place of homogeneity: “Our mom called us all ‘pig,’” he explains. In the piggery, there was no hierarchy. Pigs were kept together until they were taken away to parts unknown. Therefore, does Babe have any preconceived notion that the barnyard is any different? His upbringing in a place without a pecking order has shaped him: all are equal in his eyes. Indeed, he doesn’t know any better, and because he likes everyone the same, that makes him all the more likable.
Like a good leader, Babe knows when to fight (his “terrible rage” against the sheep thieves) and when to compromise (between the sheepdogs and the sheep). Like Farmer Hoggett, he learns that it’s not quantity of words, but quality that counts: knowing that you can not only make someone’s day, but their life by saying the right words at the right time. Babe ends on five words that are counted among the most famous final lines in a film since Casablanca. And is it a coincidence that Babe ends similarly? Farmer and pig, two allies, two friends, side by side? Of course it isn’t.
“That’ll do” is something we all want to hear, and something we all must earn. From start to finish, it’s all Babe wants: the assurance that he has a duty, a place, and a responsibility that is recognized and appreciated. He isn’t just born to become bacon, or a prize at a fair.
He’s a good pig, and everyone around him is better for it.