Who would have guessed that the sequel to an adorable, perfect family film would become not only an existential classic, but a triumph of design, characterization, surrealism, and — for some moviegoers, including me — one of the best films of 1998?

Babe: Pig in the City confounded, and quickly surpassed, my expectations. It may not make the younger kids as happy as that magical, original film did. But there’s plenty there to keep them entertained and engaged while at the same time causing parents’ eyes to widen at the ambitious social and spiritual subtext.

This is a story about the simple shaming the wise, about love humbling the proud and the complicated. It’s one of those films where the big-city types scorn the boy from the country and say, “You may think you know what life’s about, but you’re in the big city now,” and then they go on to discover the fragility of their own foundation, the folly of their arrogant presumption.

When Farmer Hoggett (James Cromwell) is injured through a mishap caused by his clumsy but kind-hearted pig, it’s Mrs. Hoggett who is on her feet and able to try and save the farm from those nasty suits that want to buy it. She’s off to the big city to try to score the fortune that will save them.

But upon arrival in the big city, she abruptly loses the pig, spends the rest of the film staggering from one catastrophe to another, while Babe ends up wandering dark streets surviving narrow escapes from the more dangerous elements of this downtown zoo (and I mean “zoo” literally.) Babe learns quickly that the animal folk of the city are generally heartless, selfish, and they stand back and watch while the innocent are victimized by the criminal element.

But the stout-hearted courage that won Babe fame and fortune on the farm re-surfaces in a place where love and bravery are a new concept. And the animals are soon lining up before him like pilgrims before Christ, or parishioners before their priest. There’s even a scene that suggests a communion ceremony, a pardoning of sins, as Babe turns a jar of jellybeans into a feast for the hungry.

In the first film, Babe had something to prove to himself; he had to solve an identity crisis and do what he only he could do, a lesson that bears telling in a hundred thousand stories. Here, he has a tougher task. With the courage of his convictions, he must put his own life on the line, offering it up for the lives of his friends, of the poor lost souls in the mad mad city, whether they understand and appreciate it or not. The symbolism of Babe’s Christ-likeness is so solemn and effective, it’s awe-inspiring.

And the masses to whom he ministers are not just a bunch of losers; they’re distinct characters, including

  • the pit bull whose heart is transformed by mercy;
  • the tempermental goldfish who may not even comprehend the grace extended to him;
  • and the old, melancholy orangutan. This philosophical monkey who lives in the attic and stares out through a stained-glass window searching for enlightenment stands as a sort of King Solomon, crying “Vanity, all is vanity.” He’s the film’s most powerful, memorable presence.

In the final act, Miller makes this near-surrealism all the stranger by re-staging a parody of his own Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, stringing up the sizable Mrs. Hoggett in a sort of “American Gladiators” combat with gourmet chefs as she disrupts an upper-class event while trying to recover her lost pig. Three-layer cakes come crashing down, balloons bombard the ballroom, people soar on strings, baby chimpanzees dangle from the chandeliers… but somehow it all makes some sort of crazy sense. If he can be faulted for anything, Miller has a little too much fun in the chaos of the finale.

But he recovers nicely, wrapping up the story with just the right note of victory and loss. Not every character walks away into a happy ending, but this is not your normal kiddy fare. This is the stuff of Dickens, told on the scale of Blade Runner and Brazil, with the madcap spirit of The Great Muppet Caper. Built to last.