Video Review: Babe on Laserdisc

James Cromwell, Magda Szubanski. Animatronic creatures by Jim Henson's Creature Shop. Directed by Chris Noonan. Aspect ratio: 1.85:1. Dolby Surround. Two sides. 92 minutes. 1995. CLV. MCA Universal Home Video 42692. Rated G. $34.99.

Babe is one of the best films of the decade to date---intelligent, charming, beautifully filmed, and certain to grab just about anyone whose cinematic appetite doesn't demand a constant diet of car chases and multiple murders. Based on Dick King-Smith's slender book, the movie adds characters and situations without detracting from the original premise of the pig who becomes a champion shepherd.

Although Farmer Hoggett doesn't keep pigs, he wins a piglet at the county fair, so he takes it home with the intent of fattening it up for Christmas dinner. But Babe is an endearing and intelligent little porker. He sounds the alarm when sheep rustlers strike, and Hoggett gets the idea of training him to herd sheep. As polite and respectful of the sheep as Babe is, they respond to him happily, and he's so successful at herding that Hoggett enters him in the national sheepdog trials.

In going against the convention that each animal should keep to its appointed place, Babe is befriended by Fly, a sheepdog; Ferdinand, an existentialist duck (one of the less successful additions to the story), and Maa, an elderly ewe. The villain of the piece is Mrs. Hoggett's spoiled and thoroughly unpleasant cat. (Well, what can you expect from a Persian?) A Greek chorus of sorts is provided by a trio of singing, falsetto mice.

As Arthur Hoggett, James Cromwell is a marvel---a lean, silent man with an expressive, hawklike face who knows exactly what words to use on those rare occasions when he chooses to speak. Plump, pretty Magda Szubanski is his exact opposite as the verbose Esme Hoggett. The casting is well done throughout the film; the only oddity is that---although these are Australian actors portraying Australian characters---there is scarcely a trace of Strine accent to be heard. Instead, almost everyone affects an American accent of sorts, usually a variation of Standard Midwestern or Southwestern Twang, with strange lapses. The various animals, real and animatronic, are believable and engaging.

Babe benefits greatly from the quality of its laserdisc image. Filmed in New South Wales, the rich greens of the beautiful landscape are captured perfectly, and the delightful farmhouse appears in its full glory. The score is exceptional and heavy on the 19th-century French composers. Its main theme, which is endlessly reworked, is borrowed from the final movement of Saint-Saëns' Symphony No. 3 ("Organ"), but we also hear from Fauré and others, including the mice singing a most amusing excerpt from the "Toreador Song" from Bizet's Carmen.

Although the scenes in the abattoir might disquiet some children's minds, the implications will go sailing over the heads of the youngest, who should thoroughly enjoy this lovely tale. Their parents will enjoy it too.