Early in "Babe: Pig in the City," there's a scene in which Babe, the Oscar-winning pig from three years ago, finds himself in a cheap hotel hideaway for animals of the lowest walks of life. Within minutes of entering his room, Babe's suitcase is stolen by a thieving little monkey.
Innocent but determined, Babe races downstairs and demands his suitcase. He's confronted not only by the thief but also by the rest of the monkey gang.
The father-figure monkey, shrugging off the pig's pleas, responds rationally: "I didn't see you with the bag. Who's to say it belongs to you?" Apparently, in this cruel modern age, the phrase "legally accurate" even applies to little talking animals.
Welcome to the most frightening movie of 1998, a film that realizes what it's like to wander into the big world and have it dawn on you that you're not back on the farm anymore.
"Babe: Pig in the City" has virtually disappeared since its late-November release, and I suspect it may have been simply too much of an anomaly in an age when "family entertainment" is practically defined as bland and innocuous.
When you have a movie that's rated G, stars a cast of talking animals and yet paints such an unsettling picture of real life, it may be hard to pinpoint what audience it's playing to.
Is there a crowd for this kind of thing? I've seen "Pig in the City" twice, first with a theater full of kids who seemed alternately puzzled and entranced by the movie, and second with a group of adults.
Both times, those who liked the movie seemed to share a certain camaraderie; we've all been there with the little pig at one time or another. After a decade's worth of "Problem Child" and "Jumanji," perhaps we've finally found a family film that kids and adults can enjoy in equal measure.
The world can be a frightening place for kids. They walk the same Earth the rest of us do, except that most of it towers over their heads. As a result, not all kids' entertainment over the years has been entirely sweet.
Even some of the most beloved Disney classics have dealt with decidedly dark themes: "Bambi" depicted the uneasy passage into adulthood, while "Pinocchio" was essentially the story of an innocent character trapped in a ruthless society.
The "Babe" series, of course, is no stranger to the dark side; in the first movie, after all, Babe learned to become a sheepherder so he could avoid a trip to the slaughterhouse.
Picking up where the first film left off, "Pig in the City" brings Babe out of the barnyard when his owners, Farmer and Mrs. Hoggett, run into debt and accept an invitation to enter Babe in a sheepherding contest in hopes of winning the prize money.
As it turns out, Babe never makes it to the contest. Instead, through a series of bizarre twists, he ends up a few miles away from the airport in the seediest part of town, staying at a hotel where owners can hide their pets from the watchful men in blue.
It is here, on the streets, that the movie goes from a simple children's fable to a genuinely stunning piece of pop craft. The composite city where Babe finds himself--it includes the Hollywood sign, the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, the Golden Gate Bridge and the canals of Venice, among other sites--is a remarkably mean one, with mad dogs lurking in the shadows and the streets populated not only by criminals, but also a truly psychotic police department that tracks down stray animals.
As in the first film, however, Babe eventually learns to adapt. "Pig in the City" ends happily, but not before leading us through some powerful images of life on the downside, as Babe and his new acquaintances begin stealing food to survive and undergo a particularly scary bust by the police.
This may be a fable, but it's a tart one. And maybe too tart, unfortunately, in a media world where kids' entertainment is defined along such mundane lines.
You might still be able to catch "Pig in the City" on the big screen, but if not, mark it on your future rental list. Few modern movies--family and otherwise--are as evocative as this vision of a world where even an indomitable little pig is one misstep away from being turned into bacon. Whether your kids will enjoy it depends, I suppose, on how much of that big, bad world they're familiar with.