Few films aimed at children have made the case for the value of every life as clearly as Babe did in 1995. Yes, that Babe—the film about the pig who acted like a sheepdog, with the talking animals, and the chapter-style format mimicking the storybook upon which the film was based (The Sheep-Pig by Dick King-Smith), and the singing mice accompanying each iris out transition and intertitle. Do not be lulled into complacency by the family-film aesthetics. When Mom the Sheepdog instructed Babe the Pig to dominate other animals by abusing them, demeaning them, and telling them what to do, and Babe refused because disrespecting another living creature would be wrong? That moment might have radicalized a generation.
There is a forthright leftism to Babe that, thanks to the film’s critical (97% on Rotten Tomatoes; seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture) and commercial success ($254 million on a $30 million budget, and a sequel in 1998’s cult favorite Babe: Pig in the City), might initially be overlooked. HBO, on which the 1995 film is currently streaming, describes it as an “endearing family comedy” starring “barnyard buddies.” Contemporary reviews called the film a “fable” and a “farm story.” Take a look at the poster: Babe, wearing a collar, stands alone against an array of other animals (a horse, a cow, an ewe, a sheepdog, a duck, the aforementioned mice) who all seem to look to him for guidance. “A little pig goes a long way,” the tagline proclaims, promising a hero’s journey upon which viewers of all ages are invited.
In hindsight, those descriptions and marketing methods feel like a way to position Babe so that it syncs up with our collective American Dream: An individual works hard, does well, overcomes obstacles, and earns the respect of their peers. But that’s an undeniable flattening of what Babe actually is. Twenty-five years after its release, what stands out about the film directed by Chris Noonan and co-written by George Miller is its unwavering sense of solidarity with the commodified and the dismissed, with the downtrodden and the ignored. A heist-minded duck named Ferdinand is the character to voice the idea that “Christmas means carnage,” but to brush off that sentiment because its speaker happens to be feathered and billed is to miss the clever way Babe uses earnestness to deliver its subversiveness.
From the very beginning, Babe contrasts cutesiness with directness, using a mixture of both approaches to paint a world in which those in power—whether they’re humans or domesticated animals, like sheepdogs and cats—rely on subjugation to retain control. The opening credits take us into the Hoggett family’s farmhouse, decorated with paintings and ceramic figures of pigs, each of which come to life as the camera pans past them. A pig jumps through a hoop, rides a broomstick, wakes from a nap before slumping back to sleep—all adorable images that place a recognizable farm animal in amusingly unprecedented situations. Then we shift from that wood-paneled, warm-hued home to a picture of domesticity: Piglets all sleeping together in a hump, with big yawns and wriggly tails, gathering around their mother to feed. And finally, we shift again, continuing to pan to reveal that the pigs are all enclosed in a tight cage together, one of many families held in a meat factory that is sunless and sterile. The reality of this representation of what the vast majority of meat production looks like in the United States is a stark swerve from the preceding imagery, and the first of many moments where Babe refuses to sugarcoat the utilitarian cruelty of America’s agriculture economy. “Goodbye, Mom,” whispers a little pig as his mother is taken away to be slaughtered, and so we meet Babe (voiced by Christine Cavanaugh).
“A worthless little runt” who is taken from the meat factory for a carnival game, Babe ends up in the care of farmer Arthur Hoggett (James Cromwell) after Hoggett correctly guesses the pig’s weight. Although “something passed between” Babe and Hoggett at that carnival game, a shared gaze that communicated “a faint sense of some common destiny,” the man has other concerns in his day-to-day life. Tending to the sheep who make up his flock with his sheepdogs, Rex (voiced by Hugo Weaving) and Fly (voiced by Miriam Margolyes). Dealing with the other animals, like Ferdinand, who tries to usurp the rooster’s crowing each morning. Painting the dollhouse he’s crafting as a gift to his granddaughter. While Hoggett busies himself with the responsibilities and routines of rural life, Babe tries to understand his new home, and the myriad social hierarchies that make up the animal community who all call Hoggett “Boss.”
First to befriend Babe is Fly, who sees in Babe someone similar to her own puppies—young, innocent, and needing protection. She takes him under her care, although her mate Rex doesn’t agree. He is aloof and authoritarian, a powerful figure on the farm for how trusted he is by Hoggett. Every day Rex and Fly go off to the fields together for work, leaving Babe to explore the rest of the farm—to make friends among the sheep, including the wise elder ewe Maa (voiced by Miriam Flynn), and to realize the differences among the animals. The Horse (voiced by Michael Edward-Stevens) and the Cow (voiced by Charles Bartlett) align themselves with Rex and Fly, believing that they are superior animals to the rest of the barnyard. They look down upon the ducks, like Ferdinand, and the chickens, and the sheep, and even little Babe. One day those animals will be eaten because “the bosses only eat stupid animals,” they huff, and they insist that the divisions among the animals are rigid and unchangeable. “That’s just the way things are,” those haughtier animals say, and they make their supremacy known over and over again. Ferdinand, the duck who acts like a rooster, is mocked and ostracized. And Babe, who befriends Ferdinand and assists him in an attempt to steal the Hoggets’ alarm clock, is warned. “Every animal in its proper place,” Rex lectures. “[Ferdinand] being a duck, he must behave like a duck. He should accept what he is, and be thankful for it. That goes for all of us.”
The explicit dictum here, voiced by Rex and reinforced by the other animals who align themselves with Hoggett as the “boss,” is that no one can change their circumstances—none of the have-nots can ever ascend to becoming haves, and none of the haves should ever tumble into being have-nots. No one should question, or topple, the hierarchy. It takes an outsider, in the form of Babe, to question the inflexibility of this divide, and to put in motion the actions to change it. He is aghast when he overhears Fly telling her puppies that pigs are stupid, but gracious about correcting her. His squeaky-voiced “Excuse me, we are not,” is just the right amount of perturbed while maintaining an infrastructure of politeness. Over and over again, Babe treats everyone with whom he comes into contact with respect, although it is rarely afforded to him. He says “Excuse me” instead of barreling forward; he asks the other animals about their lives; when he hears animals in danger, he breaks farm rules to dash forward to help. A cynical viewer applying a 2020 political lens on this might write off Babe’s actions as respectability politics, ignoring the fact that Babe’s sincerity is purposeful, and his gentle-heartedness genuine. “He would never think badly of another creature again,” the film’s narrator, voiced by Roscoe Lee Browne, tells us early in the film, and it’s a promise that Babe keeps. The power of the character is in his steadfast belief that every life has value, and that every being deserves dignity.
Expand that idea outward and you see the ways Noonan and Miller graft that ideology to various recognizable political issues. The film’s concerns about how we raise and then slaughter animals for meat are voiced most often by Ferdinand, who delivers that infamous “Christmas means carnage” line and also speaks about how living with the knowledge that he’ll one day be killed for his flesh “eats away at the soul.” Babe too struggles with that awareness later in the film, a realization that complicates his then-close relationship with Hoggett; working on the film would inspire Cromwell to become an ethical vegan. Also criticized are our reliance on machine labor rather than paying workers what they’re worth (Ferdinand’s “No sooner do I become indispensable than they bring in a machine to do the job!”), animal breeding for “pure” bloodlines (the sadness Fly feels when she sees Cromwell selling all of her and Rex’s puppies, and then pocketing the cash), and, most importantly, the suggestion that fascist forcefulness is more effective than collaborative cohesion. “You’re treating them like equals,” Fly admonishes Babe during his first test at being a sheepdog, but it’s Maa’s words that continue to guide Babe, and that form the film’s backbone: “Enough wolves in the world already.”
None of this is to say that Babe (which would make a fascinating double feature with Bong Joon-ho’s Okja) doesn’t also succeed as the charming family film it was advertised to be. Cromwell is fantastic as Hoggett, hiding tenderness and curiosity beneath a taciturn exterior. The jig he breaks into as a way to cheer up Babe late in the film is lovely for its liveliness, and for how different it is from his quietly proud “That’ll do, Pig.” The special effects and animatronics from Rhythm & Hues Studios and Jim Henson’s Creature Shop still look seamless; the film won a well-deserved Best Visual Effects Oscar for creating animals that can believably talk. And the finale, in which we see Hoggett defiantly walk alongside Babe in the face of everyone’s derision, is still deeply satisfying. But the most unexpected and impressive achievements of Babe are how it argues for collaboration as essential to community and empathy as essential to individuality. How can the collective achieve happiness when its members are kept apart, and when one group is told its “purpose” is to serve the other? It can’t—and in upending an established social order, Babe emphasized that breaking the rules is always justified if it means doing what is morally right. Those uncompromising narrative edges remain Babe’s most affecting assets.