"Babe," the 1993 fable about a pig miraculously able to beat sheepdogs at their own game, was so successful -- grossing $64 million on a $30 million budget -- that its creators followed Hollywood's golden rule: If you succeed at first, try, try again to repeat the feat.
George Miller, the Australian-born director of the "Mad Max" trilogy, upped the ante on the sequel to one of the most charming live-action films ever made for a young audience. "Babe: Pig in the City" cost more than $80 million, due in part to the cost of the rambunctious swine's encounters with more than 50 "talking" animals. Miller, also the film's co-writer and a producer, and his team relied on four times as many animatronic-computer-generated effects as were used in the first film.
The expenditures look good on film. It's a hoot seeing this pesky young porker (the voice of E.G. Daily, replacing Christine Cavanaugh) interact with the likes of hipster chimp Bob (Steven Wright), his saucy, pregnant wife Zooty (Glenne Headly) and their patrician orangutan elder Thelonius (James Cosmo), all members of a circus sideshow act operated by aging clown Fugly Floom (Mickey Rooney).
Not to mention a room full of talented singing felines and such returnees from the original as wacky duck Ferdie (Danny Mann), Border Collies Fly (Miriam Margolyes) and Rex (Hugo Weaving), crippled Jack Russell Terrier Flealick (Adam Goldberg) and, of course, that Greek-chorus trio of squeaky mice, belting out standards and introducing "chapter" titles.
The second "Babe," like its predecessor, gains from hints of the dark side of life at Hoggett farm, where the kindly farmer (James Cromwell) and Mrs. Esme Hoggett (Magda Szubanski) are contentedly basking in the glory of Babe's fame as winner of the national sheepdog competition, happily reading letters of congratulations and considering invitations to visit various dignitaries.
The proud pet, nosing around the well one day, inadvertently causes its master to suffer a fall that leaves him bandaged from head to toe and at least temporarily incapacitated. Work ceases, and the "men with pale faces and soulless eyes" (a.k.a. the bankers) come visiting, with plans to sell off the place.
Esme, determined to cash in on her pet's celebrity and save her home, through a bizarre series of circumstances winds up stranded at the Flealands Hotel in the big city. It's a not-quite-real place where jets fly ridiculously low overhead, and the image-compressed horizon offers a comic view of the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, the "Hollywood" sign, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Astro Dome.
Babe's "human," after causing slapstick turmoil downtown, is hauled off to jail. Our piglet, as a result, is consigned with the task of saving her fellow animal residents at the Flealands, finding Esme and figuring out a way to rescue Hoggett farm.
Kids and parents alike will appreciate the continuing adventures of this indomitable little pig in the metropolis, a true hero able to rise through the ranks of the local four-footers and offer a creative solution to the crisis at hand.
"Babe: Pig in the City," although not nearly as whimsical or charming as the first installment, offers plenty of the wit and home-spun humor that made a winner of "Babe."
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