BABE: PIG IN THE CITY

Directed by George Miller

Written by Miller, Judy Morris and Mark Lamprell

With Magda Szubanski, James Cromwell and the voice of E.G. Daily

***

A BUG'S LIFE

Directed by John Lasseter

Co-directed by Andrew Stanton

Written by Stanton, Donald McEnery and Bob Shaw

With the voices of Dave Foley, Kevin Spacey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Phyllis Diller

***


Both A BUG'S LIFE and BABE: PIG IN THE CITY follow the quests of childlike animals into the big bad outside world. A BUG'S LIFE is made entirely with computer animation, while BABE: PIG IN THE CITY uses CGI alongside more traditional forms of special effects, mostly to make up for the limits of its animal/animatronic cast. Why, then, is it the more irreverent and cartoonish of the two, while A BUG'S LIFE seems preoccupied with digitally updating conventional "realism"? In "Million-Dollar Graffiti: Notes From The Digital Domain," the pessimistic essay on CGI that closes his book SHORT ORDERS, British critic Jonathan Romney pins his hopes for the technology's redemption on the aggressive use of it in THE MASK and Tim Burton's MARS ATTACKS! Romney argues that "the state of graffiti is exactly what computer imagery should aspire to...Digital technology can take us far beyond the pen...it can even be a blowtorch to combust the real entirely." Needless to say, neither A BUG'S LIFE nor BABE: PIG IN THE CITY use CGI as a blowtorch, but at least the latter uses it to transform the real, not to replace it.

The story of A BUG'S LIFE is lifted from THE SEVEN SAMURAI, which in turn lifted it from any number of Westerns: Flik (Dave Foley), a frustrated teenage ant, leaves his peaceful community, which slaves away to harvest food for a brutal army of grasshoppers, and tracks down a band of out-of-work circus performers whom he mistakes for warriors. On the other hand, BABE: PIG IN THE CITY quickly abandons its initial premise: due to a well accident, Mr. Hoggett (James Cromwell) is unable to work,so Mrs. Hoggett (Magda Szubanski) and Babe (E.G. Daily) are sent off to a shepherding competition in the hopes of earning enough money to save the farm. En route to that competition, a drug-sniffing dog decides to show off by barking at her luggage. As a result of the following search, they miss their flight and wind up stranded in a threatening city. This anonymous city, whose skyline includes the Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty and "Hollywood" sign, is a marvel of production design.

A BUG'S LIFE goes on to make several other references to the Western, including a scene set in a quasi-Mexican cantina and plenty of breathtaking "landscapes" in Cinemascope, while BABE:PIG IN THE CITY mines the Expressionist vein of Emir Kusturica, Terry Gilliam and Caro/Jeunet's DELICATESSEN. Most of the people in BABE: PIG IN THE CITY are photographed to look as grotesque as possible - Miller especially loves close-ups of overweight people - while the scenes with animals suffer from an occasional dose of the cutesies. Anyone who's wished Kusturica would make a children's film will be excited by Miller's set pieces, including an elaborate finale in which Mrs. Hoggett bounces around the room propelled by suspenders and an inflatable dress. Despite the craft that went into the sequences, the production design is their real star, and I found myself wondering why I wasn't more entertained by these prodigious displays of imagination.

Once the human race exits the picture, BABE: PIG IN THE CITY really comes into its own. When Mrs. Hoggett ventures out into the hyperbolically chaotic city, she's promptly arrested, and Babe, left to his own devices, is forced to rely on the family of circus chimps that also live in the hotel. The first film's coming-of-age allegory is continued here; Babe is challenged here to make his way in a dangerous, often hostile world without giving up his, uh, humanity. As he makes contact with an impoverished community of animal outcasts, Miller's storytelling attains real emotional force. The reappearance of people is something of an anti-climax, however, as it leads us to another series of set pieces.

Elsewhere in "Million-Dollar Graffiti", Romney cites the popularity of Jackie Chan, who's legendary for risking his life by doing his own stunts, as evidence of a potential backlash against CGI. The end credits of A BUG'S LIFE feature a series of Chan-inspired "outtakes," including performer injuries and knocks to the camera. This sequence is the film's funniest moment, but it produces an odd frisson, since digital filmmaking ensures that accidents like these will never happen. (And no computer program will suffer from "artistic temperament" or a drug habit.) By including this sequence, Lasseter and Stanton demonstrate that they know there's something eerie about the seamless perfection of the world they've created. Its seamlessness goes down easier with a dose of imperfection.

It may be too simplistic and middlebrow to say that that special effects are best used as contributions to narrative and character development. Like Romney, I admire Burton's anarchic use of CGI in MARS ATTACKS!, and I look forward to the time when its price lessens to the point where, in William Gibson's words, "the streets find their own uses for things." (Imagine what avant-garde animators like Jan Svankmajer and Lewis Klahr could do with CGI.) The best moments of BABE: PIG IN THE CITY point to a happy synthesis of the digital and real, but the film is too uneven to sustain this promise. (A BUG'S LIFE may be blander, but it's far more consistent.) For all the technology that went into them, these films are best at their most old-fashioned. Anarchists and graffiti fans will have to wait and hope for the best.