Babe : Pig in the City
By Brett Beach
March 25, 2010
Thirty years ago, Robert Altman made his one and only flirtation with big-budget studio filmmaking. Popeye is an Altman film through and through and yet is best seen as an unwieldy yet joyous collaboration among perfectly (type)cast actors (Robin Williams, Shelley Duvall, Paul Dooley), a bigwig producer (Robert Evans), a playwright turned screenwriter (Jules Feiffer), two pop artist/composers (Harry Nillson and Van Dyke Parks), two major studios (Paramount and Walt Disney), an iconic comic strip/cartoon character and a $20 million dollar budget. Reviews were mixed but there were as many raves as pans and in the end, Popeye grossed nearly two and a half times that budget domestically.
Altman, ever the iconoclast, continued his tradition of pissing off all the "important people" with the purse strings and even commercial success couldn't buy him back into the fold for the next decade. With plans recently announced to subject the sailor man with the spinach can to a good old-fashioned 3D spit and polish revamping, now is a great time to check out Altman's refreshingly sweet and surprisingly cynicism-free take on Popeye. Wonderful songs, set direction that establishes Sweethaven as a sprawling seaside town that just might sprawl off into the water, and comic strip panel visual verve are all served up in a wrapper of Altman's overlapping dialogue and widescreen cinematographic ramblings. Williams, in his feature film debut, delivers an inventive but spot-on performance without any of the stream-of-consciousness meanderings that marked a lot of his work as the ‘80s slipped into the ‘90s. He's as Method here as a young Brando might have been in the role (admittedly, quite the image to work through in one's mind).
Which brings us to the further adventures of Babe. Three years after the simple but disarming tale of a pig that wants to be a sheepdog became 1995's sleeper hit/sensation by grossing $63 million in the US and another $190 million worldwide, Babe: Pig in the City opened over the long Thanksgiving weekend, leading a weak crop of holiday releases with $8 million over the five day period. Sporting a $90 million budget, the second installment of Babe's travails was thoroughly rejected by viewers worldwide, grossing just under $18 million domestic and a smidge over $50 million international. This viewer snubbing was mirrored in its near exclusion from the year's Oscar nominations, a near 180 degree slap in the face from the seven nods Babe had received. Even though Babe: Pig in the City's technical achievements rivaled those of Babe's, the sequel's lone nomination came not for art direction, visual effects, sound mixing or editing, but for Original Song, a Randy Newman composition sung by Peter Gabriel.
Such a reception seems to fly in the face of the praise and love lavished on the first film. It would be expected that there should at least have been a strong opening weekend, followed by sharp declines from (undeserved) bad word-of-mouth. Instead, it played like that sequel that seems to fail both because no one asked for it and because it steadfastly refuses to offer up the same pleasures as the first. Babe: Pig in the City compared to Babe puts me in the frame of mind to think of the second act of Stephen Sondheim's delightful musical Into the Woods versus the first. Sondheim takes familiar fairy tale archetypes and lets them play out their well-worn destinies in the first half, then humorously explodes those expectations with a pointed look at what happens after "happily ever after."