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He talks, he thinks he's a dog, but Babe the pig brings home the bacon

For a hint as to what's rarely right with children's movies these days, consider the recent rash of talking pig movies: "Gordy," an unbearable oinker about the Donald Trump of swine, and now "Babe," a winning, whimsical fable about an orphaned piglet who grows up to be, of all things, a blue-ribbon sheep dog.

Both are summer films starring fuzzy white pigs in preposterous situations. So why does "Babe" sing where "Gordy" merely squeals? For many, the difference can be summed up in four words -- Jim Henson's Creature Shop.

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When the animatronic wizards at the Creature Shop, created by the sorely missed Muppets creator, take on a project, expect first-rate visual and special effects. From the gruesome, fantastic creatures of "The Dark Crystal" to the wisecracking, scaled and feathered dino-beasties in "The Flintstones," Henson craftsmanship means "ooh-aah" fun.

"Babe" makes the most of the new technology, combining animatronic puppets with computer generated lip-syncing to add finesse to the amusing spectacle of talking critters. Within the film's first 15 minutes, a barnyard community of sheep, ducks and horses "speaks" and interacts with such infectious camaraderie that you'll want to believe the illusion is real.

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The movie unfolds in storybook fashion narrated by the soothing mahogany tones of Roscoe Lee Browne and -- get this -- a trio of shrill-voiced, scenery-chewing mice. They introduce Babe, a runty piglet who is plucked from a fair stall by the dour-faced Farmer Hoggett (James Cromwell) to be the guest of honor at his annual Christmas dinner.

With shades of George Orwell's "Animal Farm," the movie slyly conveys lessons about politics and the social order through the example of the barnyard hierarchy. And while very young children may not pick up on these subtle undertones, they will be enchanted by Babe's winsome pals -- from a klutzy duck who fancies himself a rooster to a herd of crotchety old sheep. A hissing blue Persian cat makes a seductive villain, and a maternal border collie proves to be Babe's savior by teaching him how to herd sheep.

The furry menagerie's Look-Ma-No-Strings antics and winks of grown-up humor should keep adults from nodding off, too. Parents know all too well how kiddie films often ignore the folks buying the tickets. "Babe" bridges that gap with an inspired combination of innovative storytelling and polished special effects. This is what quality family entertainment is about.

"Babe"

Directed by Chris Noonan

Starring James Cromwell

Released by Universal

Rated G

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