Welcome to Debate Week: Best Picture Losers, a series in which we’ll be looking at some of the best movies that were nominated, but ultimately lost the Oscar race for Best Picture. In this entry, Mary Beth McAndrews discusses the 1995 talking pig movie Babe.
The cast of Babe is dominated by a farm full of animals with big personalities, with effects done by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. It is by all accounts a kids’ movie, where anthropomorphic pigs and puppies get into silly farmyard shenanigans. But it goes further than that. Director Chris Noonan and producer George Miller (yes, of Mad Max fame) use these child-like expectations to create a story about belonging, survival, and being true to yourself.
The titular talking pig (voiced by Christine Cavanaugh) is introduced crying in his pen at a commercial farm as his mother is taken away for slaughter. This is not the giant, exaggerated tears seen in Disney films but rather just a small pig looking out of his pen with a discreet tear running down his snout. Immediately Babe is established as a kind and empathetic soul. Then, he is sold to a small town meat dealer who offers him as a prize to anyone who can properly guess his weight. Farmer Arthur Hoggett (James Cromwell) wins the porcine prize and takes Babe to the Hoggetts’ farm where Babe will find his true calling: sheep herding.
In the face of nasty sheepdogs, mischievous geese, and one spoiled housecat, Babe befriends Hoggett’s sheep and learns the best way to herd them: through kindness. His patience and talents are recognized by the puzzled sheep farmer, who is baffled by Babe’s uncanny ability and unorthodox approach. Inspired, Hoggett enters Babe into the sheepdog games where the farmer can prove something to the world about both the pig and himself. With a perfect score and roaring crowd, Babe ends on a note that will make anyone’s heart sing.
It is a sweet and adorable film about watching the underpig defy all odds and go against the grain to do something completely unexpected. Such a narrative structure, regardless of the protagonist’s species, is Oscar gold. Everyone loves an underdog, and even more so when they are an animal. Babe defies all odds, going from the runt of the litter on the verge of being made into a Christmas ham to an award-winning sheepherder who has won the hearts of animals and humans alike with his radical compassion.
While Babe is a family film, it doesn’t avoid the hard questions about the roles that animals play in the power hierarchy both in relation to humans and to each other. Each farm animal knows their place and are acutely aware of where they fall. Rex and Fly, the sheepdogs, are the animal leaders, holding trials and enforcing order amongst the fauna so as not to disturb the status quo.
Then, the sheepdogs recognize their place as animals to the humans as Fly plainly explains why her puppies are being sold off and leaving the farm. This is not a film about creating a sunshine-filled fantasy about peace in the barnyard but rather examining power dynamics and how restricting they become. Yes, the message is exaggerated in the depiction of sheepdogs ruling over the animals, but just think of Babe as Animal Farm-lite with less political commentary and a more universal message about rejecting societal expectations to be one’s most authentic self.
Babe fights back against farmyard expectations not with anger, but with kindness, compassion, and patience, which is a radical concept here where everyone is bullied into their proper place. Babe asks gentle questions about why things are the way they are and subtly begins to push against conformity through his questioning of the status quo and his refusal to give up when told, “no” and “you’re just a pig; this isn’t your job.”
In fact, his compassion is why he is such a talented sheeppig. Instead of the dogs, which snap, snarl, and bite the sheep to make them comply, Babe politely walks up to them and asks them politely to follow his lead. Instead of a chaotic and terrified flock, the sheep are calm, obedient, and easily handled by Hoggett. In taking the time to listen and exercise kindness with the sheep, who are regarded as idiots by the dogs, Babe is able to better understand them and explain what he wants rather than use force to get his way. This is a strange pig in his ability to empathize and communicate across species rather than accept the way things are.
Babe’s revolution through kindness extends to his creation of a found family. He watches his mother get taken away to be eaten and is the lone pig on the farm. So, he sets out to create his own family, starting with Fly and her litter of puppies. He may not be a canine, but he still fits in with their pack
With the sale of her puppies, Babe recognizes Fly’s sadness and wants to reassure her. He asks, “Fly, may I call you Mom?” which is one of the biggest tearjerker moments of the entire film. Despite this established hierarchy of who is better than who, Babe shows Fly that none of that truly matters, especially when it comes to love and connection. Love is not confined to species, and Babe is that bridge for the animals and humans of Hoggett farm.
But, Babe is about more than the animals. It is also the story of a lonely and rather depressed farmer finding a renewed passion in his life and finally feeling joy again. While he may not get as much screen time as Babe, this film is just as much about Hoggett as it is about a talented pig.
At first, Hoggett is a quiet and pensive man who is steamrolled by his enthusiastic wife with a lot to say. Like his animals, Hoggett conforms to the status quo and merely does what he’s told while tending to his sheep. He is going through the motions each day, finding a glimmer of joy with his dogs and flock out in the field. But still, he is working and living a simple life. Then, Babe changes everything.
As soon as the two meet at a town fair, they lock eyes and there is an instant connection; there is something special between these two. Hoggett recognizes Babe’s intelligence, and instead of questioning it, he encourages it. With that acknowledgment, a light begins to return to Hoggett’s eyes, as if something has finally yanked him from the monotony of his existence.
The culmination of Hoggett’s renewal takes the form of a song and dance for a sick Babe. While bottle-feeding the pig, he begins to sing:
“If I had words to make a day for you
I sing you a morning golden and new
I would make this day
Last for all time”
He gets louder and louder, finding the voice he hasn’t had for the entire film. As he gets louder, he jumps up and begins to dance, leaping in the air and tapping his feet while continuing to sing his song about making a special day for Babe. This is a new and beautiful energy flowing through the farmer all because of a sweet pig whose empathy radiates out of him and changes the life of a human.
Just like Babe, Hoggett himself goes against the grain in entering a pig into a sheepdog competition. To the viewer, such a gamble seems to have such low stakes in the grand scheme of things. But, in this rural microcosm, such events can make or break someone’s entire reputation and livelihood. The attendees laugh at him, the judges harumph, and Hoggett’s wife practically faints from shock. Such reactions illustrate how Hoggett is making a conscious choice to reject expectations to do what brings him joy and what he believes is right in his heart. And that makes their victory all the more sweet and heroic.
Films about the underdog and their trainer with the tough-as-nails exterior are an Academy Award staple. Think about Million Dollar Baby, Star Wars, Little Miss Sunshine, The Fighter: all are stories about overcoming the odds and rejecting the status quo in the name of achieving their dreams. This film about a beautiful bond that blossoms between a pig and a farmer is a well-known narrative, and yet what makes it so unique is that it is told through the innocent eyes of an animal, observing the world from his limited worldview.
That naivety and empathy, along with the quiet and crucial growth of Farmer Hoggett, make Babe worthy of an Academy Award for Best Picture. In the words of a humble sheep farmer, “That’ll do pig. That’ll do.”