Wednesday, April 6, 2011

BABE: Blu-ray (Universal 1995) Universal Home Video

"This is the story of an understanding heart and how it changed our valley forever;" so begins director Chris Noonan's Babe (1995) dubbed by critic Leonard Maltin as "The Citizen Kane of all taking pig pictures." I am not entirely certain how many of those there are, but whatever the count, there is little to deny that Babe is among the most heart-warming tales ever told about a master and his four-legged mate. Babe is a magnificently realized modern fairy tale, rife with the unlikeliest of friendships between a runt piglet (poignantly voiced by Christine Cavanaugh) and an aged English farmer Arthur Hoggett (James Cromwell).  Ever since overhearing a buoyant review of Dick King-Smith's book in 1986 on the BBC Noonan had become entranced with the idea of translating it into a movie. His interests languished for years, since in the days before computer generated graphics there seemed to be no technological way to effectively tell the story and do its material justice.
Jim Henson's Creature Shop assumes the monumental technical responsibilities of grafting believable human expressions onto the animal kingdom’s counterparts. For the most part, live animal footage is employed with a minimal amount of manipulation and even then, only around the eyes and mouths of the barn yard sect. John Cox's animatronics sub in briefly for the more ambitious sequences. In actor James Cromwell, Noonan resolves the much anticipated missing link of the project; namely to discover an actor who can create empathy and believability in his intuitive understanding of a ‘relationship’ without conveying any of it through speech. So convincing is Cromwell's performance in fact that the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences nominated him for Best Actor.
The screenplay eventually hammered out by George Miller and Noonan is structured in loose vignettes that begin one glorious summer afternoon when Farmer Hoggett guesses the approximate weight of a lonely piglet at the county fair. The prize is the runt, nicknamed Babe - who has been left to starve after his mother was taken from him and sent to the slaughter house. Babe arrives at a picturesque English farm, (Roger Ford's Production Design straight out of the world of the Brothers Grimm) managed by Arthur and his rather plump wife, Esme (Magda Szubanski). Unaware that the Hoggetts intend to fatten him up for their Christmas dinner, Babe delights in meeting the rest of the animals on the farm.
Not all return the favor. In fact, Babe's early encounters with Rex, the sheep dog (Hugo Weaving) lead to a disquieting animosity that is quelled by Fly (Miriam Margolyes); the female sheep dog who relates to Babe's loneliness as she might to that of her own pups, especially after they are taken from her and sold to a local farmer. Babe is next befriended by Ferdinand the duck (Danny Mann), a plucky and mischievous fowl who aspires to be a rooster and provides much of the comic relief on the farm. Eventually, Babe learns the truth about the relationship between man and beast through manipulative revelations provided by the Hoggett's jealous house cat, Duchess (Russie Taylor) - that the former raise the latter for their own food supply.
However, Farmer Hoggett has begun to suspect that Babe may not be worthy of the axe, but duties ascribed Fly and Rex; namely, herding sheep and keeping rustlers at bay. On nothing more than blind faith, for there is no way that animals and humans can communicate with one another, Arthur enters Babe in the prestigious sheep herding competitions. Nearly disqualified, the judges reluctantly agree to allow Arthur his moment in the pen, believing that he and Babe will be the laughing stock of the event. Instead, and with a little help from Rex and Fly, Babe learns the coveted chant of all sheep, one that commands brethren of the woolly sect to instantly obey him.
Enough cannot be said about the strange poignancy that arises from the relationship between Farmer Hoggett and Babe. On screen they are the epitome of master and mate - two sides of an invisible and strangely magical alliance linking the human and animal worlds. The Miller/Noonan screenplay moves the action effortlessly through each vignette, drawing subtle, often critical parallels between humans and beasts. These are as humorous as they prove telling. The script underscores the concept of 'which is more animalistic' by nature; the pig or the human, while slowly revealing a more quiet and mutual understanding.
Nigel Westlake's evocative underscoring and Andrew Lesnie's lush cinematography elevate to an entirely new level of sophistication. We feel this story in our hearts primarily because the look and sound of the farmyard is idyllic and beckoning. Therein is the magic in the storytelling. In the final analysis, Babe translates its understanding heart into tangible charm whatever the age of the viewer. It is, indeed, the Citizen Kane of all taking pig pictures and should be seen by everyone.
Universal Home Video's Blu-ray is a revelation. The 1080p image is rife with robust colors and fine details that leap from the screen. Blacks are velvety deep and solid. Film grain translates realistically. The audio is 5.1 DTS with Nigel Westlake's sumptuous underscoring taking center stage. Extras remain a tad disappointing. There's an audio commentary – rather meandering in spots. We also get a very brief featurette that glosses over details and has been produced with the very young in mind and a game obviously designed for toddlers. Bottom line: collectors will want to own this disc for its impressive image quality. Babe on Blu-ray is not just for the young but the young in heart. A definite keeper!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

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