Even in the 90s, an era before most popular movies were manufactured to look the same, there were instances of similar movies getting released in the same year. Sometimes it was because of targeted sabotage, as when the new animation division at Dreamworks used Antz to take a bite out of Pixar’s box office for A Bug’s Life. Sometimes it’s two studios discovering there’s enough room for two movies about asteroids hitting the earth. But it’s difficult to think of an example quite like 1995’s twin long-gestating talking pig projects, Gordy and Babe, where one film so thoroughly outclasses and thrashes the other it seems designed as a corrective even though both were conceived independently and on opposite sides of the globe.
Gordy is based on a script by a pair of writers for the 1970s rural-themed sitcom Green Acres that had been floating around for years until getting in the hands of a member of the Wal-Mart family. Babe is based on a children’s novel by Dick King-Smith that famed Australian director George Miller attempted to make for several years before punting director duties to Chris Noonan (a decision Miller then regretted and either served as a guiding light or a pain in the ass to Noonan depending on which account you believe). Both movies feature a young pig attempting to avoid the slaughterhouse after his family is taken away. Both take place in rural areas with picturesque Australian hills playing Babe’s English countryside, while Gordy proudly tours the American South. And both proudly feature talking animals led by their titular porker.
But Babe found immediate critical and financial success, even nabbing a Best Picture Oscar nomination, while Gordy tanked even by the standard of its more modest release and left virtually no cultural memory. Babe certainly had advantages over Gordy. Its budget of 30 million isn’t a kingly sum as movies go, but it is larger than Gordy’s 6 million. On the other hand, six million bucks isn’t too shabby in 1995, certainly not as shabby as the results on screen. That the market chose the other movie isn’t thanks solely to its budget. I think a case has been made sufficiently in this space that studio and marketing support does not a classic movie make. And anyway even with its cutting-edge computer touch-ups, the animals in Babe are quite puppet-y, merely a different kind of artificial from the real animals of Gordy whose animal dialog scenes sometimes synchronize with flappy animal jaws, and other times resemble Bob Sagat dubbing over home movies.
You’ve probably seen Babe or, if not, at least know key moments (“That’ll do pig,” “Baa-Ram-Ewe!”) through cultural osmosis and parody. Babe plain bests its predecessor in every talent and technical category. Yet Gordy is an often sweet, well-intentioned movie, bless its little heart. So the goal here is not (just) to dunk on Gordy but to determine the fundamental difference between greater and lesser porcine whimsy.
Gordy the pig just wants to find his family before they’re made into sausages in a factory in Omaha. His route to them is a circuitous one that involves a quick detour into fame and fortune. He rescues a boy named Hanky from drowning and his subsequent news coverage gets him a job as a famous spokesperson for the large corporation owned by Hanky’s grandfather. When the grandfather dies he leaves Gordy (a pig) his entire company in his will (he dies off screen when Hanky and Gordy briefly run away, hilariously implying that the stress of their departure is what killed him). There are multiple montages of newspaper and magazine headlines touting Gordy’s lovability and financial acumen.
A pig becoming a model and inheriting a fortune is whimsical as hell and I would stand for it. But I also would have to stand through some other fantastical elements that don’t meet the standard, like plotting bad guys who have an incriminating file folder in hand for no reason or that scheme to swap a wide-angle lens onto the film camera to make Gordy look funny while the camera operator apparently sees nothing amiss. Gordy requires a lot of this kind of short-sighted silliness to function. Whimsical elements that happen only to get the characters into and out of scrapes are contrivances. A plot should not rely on fantasy to avoid work.
Gordy is proud of its country roots. That’s country as in “country music artist,” an occupation held or held in reverence by all non-villainous characters. The 90s-style orchestral score at the opening is twinged with banjo as a warning that heartstrings are about to get chicken-fried. One character declares “I think I’m falling in love with country music” in the type of earnest delivery only allowed before meme culture. Gordy builds to a benefit concert in Branson, Missouri (first mentioned in dialog as “The Country Music capital of America, Banson, Missouri”) with each introduced C-lister piling on the ridiculousness (“Jim Stafford! Moe Bandy! Boxcar Willie!”) The combination of convenient fantasy and flogging of dubious celebrities produces the feeling we’re being sold something.
Babe gets no press. He doesn’t hobnob with the elites of St. Louis and Fayetteville. His fantastic exploits assign human intention to animal actions, and carefully tear the fabric of social reality with intention. He’s a simple young pig who falls in with a litter of border collies and learns the place of each of the animals on the farm – which get to go into the house, which are the stupid ones to be eaten – and how to stay in his lane. But he doesn’t want to stay in the lane that leads to the axe and believes that speaking kindly to the sheep will allow him to be a great sheepdog for Farmer Hoggett (James Cromwell). For his efforts, he’s given a standing ovation and perfect score at the local sheepherding contest, Hoggett speaks a kind phrase to him, and he’s probably not murdered for his succulent flesh.
And this is meaningful because while both pigs’ families get hauled off in trucks at the start of the film, Babe’s doesn’t come back. Babe loses his whole family and chooses to be kind. Gordy pretty much has everything handed to him along the way, so his choices and windfalls feel meaningless, while a glance from Farmer Hoggett feels like the world. This kind of scrutiny may be a lot to put on a kids’ movie. But it’s the difference between a memorable kids’ movie and Gordy.
On the other hand, Gordy brought us this, so it wins the 90s.