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It ain't Babe, babe.

By Jesse Fox Mayshark

MAY 17, 1999:  Critics' reactions when Babe II: Pig in the City (1998, PG) came out last winter were all over the map but were mostly all wrong, too. One group decried its "darkness," warned parents not to take their kids to it, and condemned the filmmakers for sullying the name of Babe. Another group applauded its "daring" and gave director George Miller (who produced the first Babe but is better known for the Mad Max movies) credit for avoiding the faded-Xerox approach to sequels. Some even put it on their annual "10 Best" lists.

All of which made me both curious and nervous. As a big fan of the first Babe, one of the few children's films of recent years destined to be regarded as a classic, I didn't see the need for a sequel in the first place and especially didn't like the promo shot of Babe wearing a spiked collar—not because it seemed "dark" but because it seemed dumb. So I waited until it turned up at the discount theater (like a lot of other people, I guess; the film cost more and made a lot less than its predecessor).

And the thing is, it's not a bad movie. It in no way matches the combination of wit, charm, and imagination that made Babe such an unexpected treat, but it has plenty of nice touches. The story concerns the sheep-herding pig's adventures in a mythical (and beautifully designed) "big city" while on a quest to save Farmer Hoggett's house and land. The digitally enhanced interactions of the huge animal cast are just as convincing as they were the first time around, and there are several new memorable characters, particularly a family of performing chimps. The darkness is largely superficial (the spiked collar, for example, has a fairly innocent explanation). There's certainly nothing more disturbing than the opening scene of the first film, when Babe's mother was taken away from her piglets to be slaughtered. The film's weaknesses are primarily in several long gag-filled chase scenes that have more in common with John Hughes' brutal slapstick (Home Alone, etc.) than the spirit of the first film. What keeps Babe II from outright success is not that it's too "adult," but that it's too childish in the wrong ways.

An even better movie that was also misjudged as "too dark" for children is Nicolas Roeg's surprisingly straightforward adaptation of Roald Dahl's The Witches (1990, PG). While on vacation, a young boy discovers his hotel is hosting a convention of witches that's conspiring to turn all children into mice. Anjelica Huston is wonderfully wicked as the head sorceress, and the film has a nice mixture of laughs and suspense. It's a modern fairy tale that's true to the genre's classically gnarled roots.

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