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Studio slaughtered 'Babe 2'

The most enchanting film of the year is going down in flames. "Babe: Pig in the City," which will make a surprising number of critics' "10 best" lists, has been crushed by "A Bug's Life" and by wrongheaded publicity. It's outta here.

The destiny of "Babe 2" can't be explained by saying audiences didn't like it, because audiences didn't see it. Critics generally loved it. People tell me it's the best film they've seen in a long time. But the "failure" of "Babe 2" lies with its marketing, and with the way people gather and store information.

Marketing: Because the film had a tie-in with a fast-food chain, Universal Pictures was unwilling to change its opening date, which was Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving - despite clear omens that the date was suicide for the pig. Why? Because Disney's "A Bug's Life" was opening on the same day. You simply don't open any children's film against a new animated feature from Disney.

Information storage: People are busy and don't make a study of new movies. They can process perhaps one or two facts about most films. The scientist Richard Dawkins has named these little info-nuggets "memes." They're like genes, except they hop from mind to mind, instead of from generation to generation.

By mid-November, those who cared at all had stored two memes about "Babe: Pig in the City." (1) It was overbudget and late, and (2) The studio was concerned that it was "too dark." After the movie opened, they could add a third factoid: It was a flop.

Do you want to see a movie that is a flop, too dark for kids, and was late and overbudget? Of course not, because all that information is negative.

What if I were to say that the film was late because the director was working to make the special effects better? That the budget is all up there on the screen, since there were no big star salaries?

The subject matter is "dark" only in the same way "Bambi" and "Dumbo" are dark. Because the film is intelligent and creative enough to delight adults, it may indeed be too challenging for younger children. But for kids 8 and up, it may become one of their favorite films.

OK, I'm telling you all that. Movie critics across the land have said much the same thing. But we movie critics labor under the handicap of having seen the film - unlike the scribes on the financial pages and the cable news pundits, who pass on the box-office "buzz."

Why is it bigger news that "Babe 2" flopped than that "Babe 2" is a great movie? Because the head of Universal got fired after the pig's flop - by corporate bosses who thereby brilliantly made absolutely sure that the headlines about "Babe 2" in its first week would be negative.

"Babe: Pig in the City" is a magical, original, daring, wonderful movie, one of the year's best. Take my word for it. I've actually seen it.

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