Babe: 'Make them feel inferior'

Babe: 'Make them feel inferior'
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Babe (voiced by Christine Cavanaugh) is humiliated in his first attempt to control a pen of sheep. Fly (voiced by Miriam Margolyes) tells him that pigs are inferior, which he doesn’t believe. Rex (voiced by Hugo Weaving) feels his honour as a sheepdog has been degraded. The old ewe Maa (voiced by Miriam Flynn) reprimands Babe for trying to be a savage ‘wolf’. She teaches him a more civilised way to communicate with her fellow sheep. Summary by Paul Byrnes.

The saturated colours and warm tint evident in this clip help create the sense of fairytale or fable in the storytelling. It also removes the story from the more traditional arid looking Australian landscape. The book was English, the film Australian, but the money to make it was American – so it takes place in a world that’s a mixture of all three. The American accents were controversial in Australia and the UK but did not apply uniformly. Mr and Mrs Hoggett retain something of a rustic British-Australian sound, while Rex and Fly are clearly American, as are Babe and Maa. Dick King-Smith wrote the book based partly on his experiences as a failed farmer in Gloucestershire in England. Producer and co-writer George Miller read the book on an international flight and determined immediately to turn it into a film. Director Chris Noonan had worked with Kennedy-Miller on two of their highly successful mini-series in the 1980s – as a writer and director on The Cowra Breakout (1984) and Vietnam (1988). He did not make another film for 11 years after Babe, until Miss Potter in 2006.

The theme of Babe is partly that tolerance and creativity are linked, as in this scene. Babe finds a new way to herd sheep, by responding to his own nature, rather than the instructions of his new mother Fly, who believes, as a dog must, that sheep are inferior. Even so, Fly is much more flexible than Rex, whose status is bound up in the hierarchies of the farmyard. Tradition, in Rex’s example, is anti-creative and hidebound. Dr George Miller has long been interested in the process of creativity, a theme that’s explored further in his Oscar-winning computer animation Happy Feet (2006). Both films are about young heroes who challenge the status quo to find their creativity, be it tap-dancing or sheep-herding. Miller began his career making films that challenged the status quo in Australian film. Mad Max was far from respectable in 1979, when most Australian movies were more polite and funded by Australian taxpayers (which Mad Max (1979) was not). In that sense there’s an element of autobiography in both Babe and Happy Feet (2006), and a message to young people to find their own creativity by questioning tradition.

Babe Synopsis

A little pig called Babe (voiced by Christine Cavanaugh) is born in a battery farming shed. His whole family is sent away to be butchered but he is chosen for a country fair, where he is won by farmer Hoggett (James Cromwell). Lonely and miserable, the pig is adopted by Fly (voiced by Miriam Margolyes), a sheepdog who has her own litter of boisterous pups. Fly’s partner Rex (voiced by Hugo Weaving), a champion sheepdog, rules the farmyard but Babe innocently upsets the strict hierarchy by wanting to herd sheep. Mrs Hoggett (played by Magda Szubanski) would prefer to eat Babe for Christmas dinner, but her husband sees his potential. He enters his newly-trained sheep-pig in the annual sheepdog trials. Babe uses his empathy, rather than his teeth, to get the sheep to obey. As the crowd jeers, Babe fulfils his destiny.

Babe Curator's Notes

Apart from the humour with which it was made, and the novelty of the talking animals rendered convincing for practically the first time on live-action film, Babe was a worldwide success partly because it’s a film about survival. It begins in the pig equivalent of a death camp; Babe’s mother and father are led away to be butchered, then his brothers and sisters. He is saved only by the luck of the draw. It’s a chilling opening for a film aimed primarily at children, but that may be part of why people responded to it: the film doesn’t lie about the cruel ways of the world. The book, by English children’s author Dick King-Smith, doesn’t open in the same industrialised farming scene, although it’s very frank about what pigs are for. Mrs Hoggett sees Babe only in terms of bacon and pork chops. In the film, Babe is confronted with the truth early in his new life on the farm, when the duck Ferdinand explains some unpleasant facts – humans eat animals. Babe refuses to believe it at first, until he sees what happens to another duck on Christmas eve. Ferdy’s erratic behaviour – trying to turn himself into a rooster – is a response to the brutal fact that he has no other function than to be eaten. Babe’s desire to become a sheep-pig follows the same logic. Although he never expresses it, he’s trying to make himself indispensable to Farmer Hoggett, in order to survive.

On a philosophical level, the film attacks the idea that hierarchies have to be observed to maintain social order. That’s why Rex the sheepdog is driven to violence. The pig’s independent spirit is a direct challenge to his status. Whatever else is going on in the film, beneath all of the hijinx and cute puppies and picture-book beauty of the setting, there’s a world of terrible cruelty that children could easily interpret for themselves. The farm animals compete with and betray each other in order to survive; they are superstitious and given to all kinds of ignorance and prejudice (‘pigs are definitely stupid’, says Fly). At worst they even kill each other, as we learn when Maa, the kindly old sheep, is brutally attacked by three dogs belonging to sheep rustlers. In this world, Babe’s youthful optimism becomes heroic, even though it’s partly because he’s not yet fully aware of how dangerous the world is. He responds without prejudice to other animals; he defends sheep against attack or abuse; he uses dialogue instead of force. He’s a pig of pure heart – or as Maa says ‘a heart of gold’. It was said at the time of the film’s release that Babe turned a generation of children into vegetarians, an exaggeration that contains a grain of truth. At heart, Babe is a film about the human rights of all, even those that aren’t human.

Notes by Paul Byrnes

Education Notes

This clip shows Babe (voiced by Christine Cavanaugh), a young pig attempting to prove to top dog Rex (voiced by Hugo Weaving) that he can be a ‘sheepdog’. Gently tutored by the motherly sheepdog Fly (voiced by Miriam Margolyes), Babe applies established sheep-herding practices by bullying the sheep, only to fail. With some guidance in good manners from the old ewe Maa (voiced by Miriam Flynn) he succeeds in rounding up the flock, much to Fly’s surprise and pride. The animals are portrayed using computer-generated imagery (CGI) and voice-overs.

Educational value points

  • The obscuring of the specific time and location in which the film takes place roots the story in the fantasy genre, which demands that viewers suspend their disbelief, in this case of the talking animals. There are no clues in the production design, narrative, sound design, characterisation or dialogue (other than the use of ‘big butt-heads!’) to identify time and place, suggesting that these are not key elements.
  • The allegorical nature of the film Babe, based on the novel The Sheep-Pig by Dick King-Smith (1922–) and set in the microcosm of a farmyard, is apparent in the clip. The young pig Babe has to learn some life lessons if he is to survive in the world. The sheep, led by Maa, teach Babe that good manners, kindness and cooperation when herding them will be more successful than the brute force used by the sheepdogs, notably Rex the top dog.
  • The film Babe seamlessly integrates computer animation, animatronics – movable robotic models – and film of live animals to render emotive, expressive animal characters. The narrative relies heavily on anthropomorphism. New computer technology allowed the sheep to be fully lip-synced, talking and laughing when they react to Babe’s insult and then to his bite. These techniques give a range of complex human emotions to the animals.
  • Fly’s surprise at Babe’s successful sheep herding is conveyed through editing and camera movement. To reveal her thoughts the filmmakers use a tracking shot that moves towards her face to focus attention on her expression, then a close-up in which her ears twitch. Intercut with these shots is a shot of the obedient sheep, shown from Fly’s point of view. These shots combine to reveal her thoughts without dialogue or reliance on identifiable human expressions.
  • The low camera placement situates Babe as the primary character in the clip. The level of the camera, as well as presenting the action from the animals’ point of view, invests the characters with status. In the clip the audience responds to Babe as the central and most vulnerable character as the larger, taller characters are shown from his point of view. This is made clear when the sheep and the farmer are in frame.
  • The emotionally charged musical score reflects Babe’s progress from failure to success. The soaring horns early on evoke a sense of purpose, then the orchestral soundtrack shifts to reflect the serious intent in Babe’s attempts to bully the sheep. After a darker interlude representing Rex’s disgust with Babe, the soundtrack’s light strings register Babe’s reprimand from Maa, the good-natured understanding between Babe and Maa and a sense of wonder at his success.

Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia

Production company:
Kennedy Miller, Universal Pictures
George Miller, Bill Miller, Doug Mitchell
Chris Noonan
George Miller, Chris Noonan
Based on a book by:
Dick King-Smith
Christine Cavanaugh, James Cromwell, Miriam Flynn, Danny Mann, Miriam Margolyes, Magda Szubanski, Russie Taylor, Hugo Weaving

This clip starts approximately 40 minutes into the feature.

We see Babe the pig approaching Fly the sheepdog in the sheep pen.
Babe This is ridiculous, mum. 
Fly Nonsense, it’s only your first try. But you’re treating them like equals. They’re sheep, they’re inferior. 
Babe No, they’re not. 
Fly Of course they are. We are their masters, Babe. Let them doubt it for a second and they’ll walk all over you.

Rex enters the sheep pen and approaches Babe and Fly angrily.
Rex Oi, get that pig out of there. 
Fly Make them feel inferior, abuse them. Insult them.
Rex Oi. 
Babe But they’ll laugh at me. 
Fly Then bite them. Be ruthless. Whatever it takes, bend them to your will. 
Rex Enough. 
Fly Go on, go.

We see Babe approaching the sheep attempting to be authoritative.
Babe Move along there ya… ya big buttheads. 
We see the sheep laugh at Babe. Babe then growls and bites one of the sheep on the leg.
Maa Young boy, stop this nonsense. What’s got into you all of a sudden? I just got finished telling them what a nice young pig you’ve been.
Babe answers Maa sheepishly. 
Babe Maa, I was just trying to be a sheepdog. 
Maa Huh! Enough wolves in the world without a nice lad like you turning nasty. Ya haven’t got it in ya, young ‘un.

We see the farmer walk away disappointed from the flock of sheep. We then see Rex talking to Fly.
Rex You and I are descended from the great sheepdogs. We carry the blood line of an ancient Bahu. We stand for something, and today I watched in shame as our honour was betrayed. 
Fly Rex, dear, he’s just a little pig. 
Rex All the greater the insult.

We return to see Babe apologising to the sheep.
Babe I’m sorry I bit you. Are you alright? 
Sheep 2 Well, I wouldn’t call that a bite myself. 
Sheep 3 Have you got teeth in that floppy mouth of yours, or just gum? 
Maa You see ladies, a heart of gold. 
All sheep together Heart of gold. 
Maa No need for all this wolf nonsense, young ‘un. All a nice pig like you need do is ask.

We see Babe rounding up the sheep into the pen as the sheep happily cooperate. We see Fly looking on.