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|August 13, 1997||
No one in their right minds would make a Mickey Mouse film staring real mice. So why was 101 Dalmatians remade with real dogs when the '60s animation film was already so successful? I don't have an answer to this question. But I found it so annoying that such a project had been attempted and been a box office success as well, that my mind was set against the film, long before I actually saw it.
It wasn't as bad as I thought: it was worse. By which I mean, I not only disliked this film, but it made me rethink my fondness for the earlier one as well! For instance, I thought it was cute when, in the animated version, the lead dogs Pongo and Perdita pursued their own romance by drawing their owners together.
But in the new film, I thought Pongo looked like a shifty-eyed schemer and Perdita like an air-head. Their human owners, Roger and Anita, behaved like a pair of bumbling automatons being manipulated by their pets. They fall in love and marry like lemmings on their way to the nearest cliff. Give or take a few details, the story is a paean to reproduction -- and who needs that, in this over-crowded planet?
In both films, the villain is an unmarried woman who prefers exotic fur coats and abhors the cosy comforts of heterosexual romance, as if it is a foregone conclusion that anyone who is voluntarily single must be a dangerous lunatic.
Both films end with the suggestion that unbridled reproduction is the goal to aim for. The final shot in the new film shows the green and pleasant countryside of England gradually being obliterated under a squirming carpet of fat, spotted puppies, suckling their way to glory.
Babe looked as if it would be an improvement. After all, the book was absolutely charming, about a piglet whose sweet and trusting character earns him a place of respect at Hoggett Farm. And, of course, the animals in the film are lovable, but what a traffic undertow the plot has! At every turn, the viewer is reminded that unless an animal has a purpose on the farm, its final destination is a dinner-plate. Whereas the book deals with this fact in a calm and sensible manner, the film makes it into the darkness that underlies all existence -- the chewing mouth at the end of life's tunnel.
The book is set firmly in England, whereas the film inhabits a fantasy realm which looks like a cross between England and Transylvania but behaves like the US. The gender politics, which in the book are tucked out of sight, overwhelm the film: for instance, Rex and Fly, the dog couple, have an abusive relationship in which Fly plays the cowering, submissive spouse and Rex an embittered wife-biter. The farmer's wife looks like a pudding teetering on tiny feet and prattles on like an imbecile who cannot understand her husband's fondness for the tasty little porker being fattened for Christmas.
In the book, it is clearly the sheepdog trials which become the focus of the story whereas, in the film, the main issue is how Babe will justify his continued existence outside someone else's gut. The semi-mystical union of pig and sheep, which endows the book with something close to spiritual beauty, is entirely lacking in the film.
There's an argument in favour of reality which these films might seem to support. But live action isn't necessarily more real. For instance, there is apparently some convention in American films that frowns on revealing the genital organs of male animals. Thus, Pongo of 101... was a neutered dog whose rear end is in plain sight in a couple of shots. He could never have sired even one puppy, never mind 15. Meanwhile, Babe is meant to be a male piglet but, in the one scene where we glimpse his little pink underbelly as Mrs Hoggett measures his girth, the twin row of tiny teats tells us teat "he" is actually a "she".
One of the luxuries of animation is that anatomical accuracy can be flung out of the editing window, along with the inability to speak English as well as economic truths. In both versions of 101..., Roger and Anita are supposed to be young and struggling, despite owning an elegantly appointed three-storey home and a housekeeper. I didn't notice it in the animated film but, in live action, it was too glaring an inaccuracy to be ignored.
Is it too much to ask of children's films that they look beyond the imperatives of food and reproduction? I don't think so. Children's literature and films can be the stage on which a whole generation's ideals and aspirations are conceived in microcosm. In the space of an hour's entertainment, they can create a yolk-sac of meaning which can nourish a person's inner life even into late adulthood. It's worth demanding more substantial kid's fare than was dished out in these two films.
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