Talking Pictures

Serving the Pig

Babe: Pig in the City

By David Templeton

Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This time around, he finds author Susan Chernak McElroy at home in her Wyoming ranchhouse, revved up and ready to discuss the lively but disappointing sequel Babe: Pig in the City.

It is a cold, windy and miserable afternoon in Jackson, Wyoming–and Susan Chernak McElroy is annoyed by the weather. Sort of.

“It’s awful,” she laughs. “It’s terrible. It’s so bitter and cold out. The least it could be doing is snowing. It should be snowing. I want to have a white Christmas.” This is Brightstar Farm. Actually, it’s “Three acres of sagebrush”–as McElroy describes it–that is being transformed into a reincarnation of the other Brightstar Farm that this best-selling author recently left behind in upstate Oregon. Her chickens, for the moment, are in the care of a friend in New York, until the chicken house can be built. The donkeys currently reside outside on the deck, and occasionally–when someone leaves the door ajar–they come inside the house for a visit.

McElroy, a former Humane Society educator and vetrinarian’s assistant, is the author of two bestselling books: Animals as Teachers and Healers (Ballantine, 1997) and the recent Animals as Guides for the Soul: True Stories and Reflections (Ballantine, 1998). Both are collections of stories from around the world. The first book primarilly explores the role animals have played in the recovery and rehabilitation of people with serious illnesses. The second gives examples of ways that people can learn from their pets, using the natural characteristics of animals as models of srength, determination and general good behaviour. Since publishing her first book, McElroy has been receiving hundreds of letters a week from people with stories to tell, people whose lives have been enriched, and whose hearts have been humbled, by the deeds and attitudes of animals.

Which brings us to Babe. The kindhearted pig from the Oscar nominated movie is back in a sequel, which McElroy journeyed out to see last night. She was, it is fair to say, disappointed.

Babe, I want you to know, is the first and only movie I ever actually bought to have at home,” she explains. “It’s one of the most wonderful films I’ve ever seen.”

In the first film, a quiet sheep farmer named Hoggett recognizes that his new pig has greater potential than merely to star as Christmas dinner. By the end of that movie, Babe has overcome the prejudiced attitudes of the barnyard animals–and all the neighboring humans, as well–and has risen to become a champion sheep herder. As winning a character as was Babe, whose unfailing politeness to his sheep was the secret of his success, it was the farmer that most impressed McElroy.

“I was in love with Farmer Hoggett. I was smitten,” she confesses with a laugh. “Here’s this person from this incredibly conservative, staid, traditional community–who was nevertheless a very original thinker. He was so open to the possibilities. At the beginning of that movie the narrator says, ‘This is the story of an unprejudiced heart, and how it changed our valley forever.’ And I always think, ‘Whose heart do they mean? Is it Babe or is it Farmer Hoggett?

“When the farmer sings and dances for the sick pig– I weep every time I see that,” she continues. “Farmer Hoggett was willing to come out of his ‘Comfort Zone,’ if you will. He was willing to look silly, in that scene and later when he leads the pig out compete in the sheepdog trials. When I first saw Babe, I remember turning to my husband–who doesn’t get any of this animal stuff–and I said, ‘That’s the bravest man I’ve ever seen.’ Everytime I watch it, when he says to Babe, ‘That’ll do pig. That’ll do,’ I start weeping.

“So, yes, I loved, loved, the first movie.”

And the sequel, in which Babe and Mrs. Hoggett travel to the big city for two hours of non-stop pratfalls and noisy commotion?

“Well, it’s a visual treat for the eye,” McElroy allows. “But …”

Exactly. The simple pleasures and plotting of the original are wiped away in the follow-up, replacing them with a much busier, far less appealing series of chases and escapes. Still, even though I preferred the first film, I found enough in the sequel to entertain me. McElroy, on the other hand, couldn’t quite forgive it for abandoning the spirit of the original.

“Babe, the pig, has so much to say to us,” she explains, “so much to offer, and so much to bring us. He’s wonderful and he’s wise and fantastic role model–for children or adults. Unfortunately, this movie didn’t serve the pig very well. It was all about weirdness and slapstick. It became too clownish. And the ending–with the farmer’s wife bungee jumping in an inflatable circus clown suit–was two tilts over the top. All that bizarre clownish stuff ultimately fails the pig.”

Not that Babe isn’t given opportunities to display his characteristic goodness–there just aren’t as many of them as before. The narrator does suggest the moral of the film, that “A kind and steady heart can change the world,” but after its all over, the real motivation of the filmmakers seems to be, “Bigger and bolder must be better.”

As we talk, I can’t help but wonder if Babe–so good hearted and loyal–has any precedent in the real life world of pigs.

“Do I have any pig stories?” McElroy muses. “Actually, yes. I stumbled on this one story once–in USA Today, I think–about a pot-bellied pig who brought help to her owner when the owner was having a heart attack.

“The pig only knew one trick,” she says. “It was called “Dead Piggie,” where she’d roll over on her back and stick her feet up in the air to get a treat. So when her owner was on the floor with the heart attack, the pig kept running out through a tiny dog door, scraping herself up to get out, then, whenever a car was coming, she’d flop down in the middle of the road, with her feet up, trying to get the car to stop. But for 40 minutes, people kept driving around her.

“Finally, some guy came, knocked on the door, and called, ‘Hey do you own a pig? There’s a pig in distress out here.’ And the woman called out to him, ‘Call the hospital. I’m having a heart attack.’ According to the paper, the doctors said she’d probably have been dead if another 15 minutes had gone by. Meanwhile, her dog never did anything except to run around and look excited.

“So. Like Babe, the pig showed persistence and determination,” McElroy concludes happily. “And that’s plenty, right? I mean, that’ll do, pig. That’ll do.”

Web extra to the December 24-30, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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