Talking Pig In `Babe' Is Technical Marvel, And One Funny Porker

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XXXX "Babe," with James Cromwell, Magda Szubanski, Christine Cavanaugh, Miriam Margolyes. Directed by Chris Noonan from a script by Noonan and George Miller. Crossroads, Everett 9, Factoria, Grand Cinemas Alderwood, Issaquah 9, Kent, Kirkland Parkplace, Oak Tree, Renton Village, SeaTac Mall, Snohomish, Uptown, Valley drive-in. "G" - general audiences. -----------------------------------------------------------------

Last month's family feature, "The Indian in the Cupboard" made you believe a 4-inch actor was cast to play with a 4-foot kid.

"Babe" makes you believe there are talking animals. This Australian- produced, thinly plotted family feature of a pig that walks to a different drummer is a technical marvel. It's also a kick in the pants.

Set in rural Great Britain, it follows the serendipitous journey of Babe, the cutest porker in film history. Farmer Hoggett (James Cromwell) wins Babe at a country fair and brings him to a new home. Unaware of a pig's destiny (that is, food), Babe strikes up friendships with an irascible duck, a motherly border collie and assorted sheep and cattle. The animals speak to each other but retain their natural noises, creating a delightful mixture of farmspeak.

The surprises in the slight story are better discovered than told. Babe finds hidden talents that lead to a predictable, almost "Rocky"-like ending - yet it never comes off as forced or blunt.

George Miller, the creator of the "Mad Max" series, produced and co-wrote "Babe." As in other films he has nurtured ("Dead Calm," "Flirting"), Miller brings an A-list team of professionals. With Jim Henson's Creature Shop, he creates a seamless transition between live animals and animatronic clones that speak to each other.

As with all special-effects movies, the gee-whiz dazzle is for naught unless the story works. Based on Dick King-Smith's book, Miller and co-writer/director Chris Noonan have designed perfect family fare - the adults will laugh as much as the kids. Even the silliest element - a trio of singing mice - works in a giddy way. And there are no jokes about manure.

Broad humor makes "Babe" nothing like other talking-animal movies such as "Homeward Bound" or "Milo and Otis." "Babe" more resembles a live-action Muppet movie with its laugh-out-loud humor and ridiculous situations. And "Babe" is good for you. The piglet discovers being nice is a better form of communication, and you can be anything you want to be (as long as you're not Christmas dinner).

Miriam Margolyes and Hugo Weaving (Tick in "Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert") lead the "voiced" actors as the sheep dogs that run the animal world. Danny Mann voices a scene-stealing duck, and Christine Cavanaugh fills the lead's shoes - er, hoofs.

Still, the movie would have a chance to fail if not for the presence of the gentle giant James Cromwell as the Farmer Hoggett. With a slow drawl and twinkle in his eye, Cromwell comes off as the kind of farmer who would have talking animals on his farm. Cromwell makes the movie work with his soft asides and gentle manner. You believe the narrator (the velvet-voice Roscoe Lee Browne) when he says the farmer and pig form a special relationship when they first meet.

The hysterics are handled by comedienne Magda Szubanski as Mrs. Hoggett, who attends to her spoiled cat.

Wonderfully lit by cameraman Andrew Lisnie, the idyllic farm and residence seem entwined with the smooth hills, enhancing the fairy-tale quality of the film (shot entirely in Australia). The look tops off a film that is exceptional in its technical effects and its graceful ability to entertain.