Babe ★★★

This is a potentially adorable, beautifully shot fable about a farm pig discovering his hidden talents; though mostly a comedy, it comes equipped with some surprisingly dark messaging about social orders and ethical consumption... which is actually not the reason its maudlin, uneven tone nearly does it in. An early caper scene in which the title pig cooperates with a conniving duck to try and destroy an alarm clock (it's complicated) displays such wit and imagination it automatically renders everything that follows it a disappointment. The scenes involving Babe's assimilation into his home, surrounded by strange new creatures brought to astounding life by Jim Henson's Creature Shop and a busload of animal wranglers, are vastly more entertaining than those that either try to advance the rather trite, formulaic plot -- whereby Babe violates various four-legged ethics codes by becoming a sheepdog, placing himself up against the usual staid norms that are always the villain in stories like this -- or to fall back on easy sentimentality. But the structural obligations win out, sadly. This could have been so much funnier and more touching, but its comedy and pathos have little dignity, rarely letting a funny joke or a sweet moment pass without excessive punctuation. (Do we really need to watch the pig urinate? Do we need James Cromwell to not only sing to his piglet, which is great, but dance an entire pointless jig? Do we really need an entire long, violent death sequence for a major character, woefully mismatched in tone to the rest of the movie? That also ruins the movie's best running gag, the melodramatic narration assigned to mundane events, because suddenly it no longer seems melodramatic. Do we really need the farmer's wife to be a character at all?) Chris Noonan's direction is annoyingly derivative, aping Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton without the attendant menace or playfulness.

All that said, it is cute, and likable, and looks splendid; the dejection mostly comes from the periodic glimpses we get of a much better movie, and perhaps from the fact that this inoffensive, polite concoction netted a Best Picture nomination, probably for technical reasons, in the same year that Toy Story did not.