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Film review: Babe

Story of a young pig is a charmer with special effects from the Muppet folks and clever dialogue.

The folks at the Muppet factory provided some special effects and animatronics for "Babe" but apparently had nothing to do with the film's writing. Yet there is a Muppet sensibility, if you will, about this fanciful piece of whimsy, the live-action story of a pig who trains as a sheepdog (based on the children's novel "The Sheep-Pig" by Dick King-Smith).

Unlike the miserable "Gordy" of a few months ago, the pigs and other animals in this low-key Australian family comedy talk to each other but not to humans, giving them a sense of community all their own. (There are also echoes of "Charlotte's Web.")

But what makes "Babe" most enjoyable is its offbeat sense of humor, with clever dialogue exchanges and a few wacky bits of business (a duck who thinks he's a rooster could give Daffy a run for his money and a trio of singing mice bring down the house when they break into "Blue Moon").

Babe is the name of a young pig separated from his family, saved from the sausage factory by fate as he is chosen to be the prize in a weight-guessing booth at a local, rural fair. There, he is won by kindly old Farmer Hoggett (veteran character actor James Cromwell in a wonderfully deadpan performance), who feels an affinity with his animals — and who correctly guesses Babe's weight.

Initially, the pig is shunned by the other animals on the farm. Since Farmer Hoggett doesn't raise pigs, the dogs and cows and sheep don't quite know what to make of him. "Pigs are stupid," a sheepdog says until she learns otherwise. Eventually, Babe wins them over and is "adopted" by the sheepdog, as well as a particularly maternal sheep.

"Babe" is broken into "chapters," each introduced by a Greek Chorus of mice, who sing like Alvin and the Chipmunks. The anecdotal style is not strictly anthological, as the film does have a strong story that runs throughout the picture. (It's a technique that can sometimes undermine a film's best intentions, but in this case it works quite well.)

The creatures to whom Babe becomes close, as well as those who aren't so friendly, are all so alive and charming and richly developed that it's hard to tell where the real animals leave off and the animatronics kick in.

And though the filmmakers romanticize farm life, they don't sugarcoat the realities. Humans raise many animals for food, a wolf attacks the sheep, poachers are a dangerous threat — and whether Mrs. Hoggett (Magda Szubanski in a bouncy, amusing turn) wants pork or foul for Christmas dinner becomes a serious issue.

But these more solemn elements are never considered too deeply or for too long. This is a "family movie" after all — a sprightly, amusing romp for "kids of all ages." And this kid had a great time.

"Babe" is rated G, though there is some violence and mild vulgarity.