Austin Chronicle

DIRECTED BY: Chris Noonan

REVIEWED: 09-02-97

To be sure, Babe and Animal Farm have a lot in common: a small farm setting, a spirit of revolution, a dose of hayloft sermonizing, an untimely death, a comic duck, and, of course, talking pigs in lead roles. Fertile ground for further research, as they say, and indeed the two are ripe for some tongue-in-jowl academic scrutiny. Namely, how does Babe offer a revisionist understanding of Orwell's famous maxim: "All animals are created equal, but some animals are more equal than others"? The animated Animal Farm is darkly drawn and cynical in tone, and is remarkably faithful to George Orwell's dystopian fable of totalitarian times. With nothing to lose but their yokes, the beasts of burden on Manor Farm, led by a charismatic pig, overthrow the tyrant Jones. Having grasped the means of production, the liberated livestock destroy the instruments of oppression and set out to build a better society, complete with universal education, an even distribution of wealth, and laws mandating inter-species equality. But Animal Farm is soon beset by greed, ambition, and dissension among the shanks, and in short order, the ascendant pigs are firmly entrenched as dictators, using political murder and a toothsome militia to defend their regime even as they violate the rules of their own utopia. The revolution has failed, besieged by the desire for power, and one tyrant has replaced another. (Kinshasa, anyone?)

In Babe, pigs are shown in an altogether more favorable light. Orwell's cynical vision is archly rebuked in this artfully shot tale of a pig who wants to be a sheepdog. Here the charismatic swine remains true to his egalitarian principles, and over the course of the narrative, the farm animals achieve the communitarian democracy Orwell's beasts only dream of: from each according to his ability, to each according to his need. Here the transgression of traditional barnyard roles is successful and the political climate optimistic. Moreover, Babe moves away from the "four legs good, two legs bad" reductionism of Animal Farm, which, in its allegorical simplicity, cannot afford the nuanced treatment of quadruped-biped relations that Babe offers. On the whole, Babe provides a stunning revisionist take on barnyard politics, and may change the whole way we view pigs politically. As with all trenchant academic work, this conclusion invites further research: The pigsty is fertile ground indeed. Sadly, my scope is necessarily limited, and I must leave it to future scholars to dissect power relations in Charlotte's Web or examine the subversion of gender roles in Porky and Petunia. But let no scholar turn away from these questions in disdain, for when pigs speak, they speak volumes.

--Jay Hardwig

Capsule Reviews

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