Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: we have two sequels coming out in one weekend to films that had no right to be as great as they were, and probably too great to work a second time; but it's still easy to hope for the very best from 22 Jump Street and How to Train Your Dragon 2. Typically, sequels to actually surprisingly great movies don't happen, but they exist, and they typically only give one hope for cautious optimism, at best.

Is it possible for a film to be legitimately good even if it's a completely awful sequel? I'm not really asking rhetorically: it's an interesting enough thought experiment that becomes completely, desperately important in the case of Baby: Pig in the City a 1998 sequel that has no small amount of merit, especially in the areas of production and costume design, but can certainly not claim for itself that it's in any meaningful way a successful or even appropriate follow-up to 1995's Babe, one of the great children's movies of all time. Pig in the City isn't just not one of the greatest children's movies of all time; I find myself wondering if any but the most perverse would be comfortable to call it a children's movie at all, instead of a movie that uses the texture and logic of a children's movie in service of something very different.

For Pig in the City is outlandishly brutal and dark. Not in that "kids can withstand darker stuff than you trust them with" sense whereby something like Bambi is not, in fact, endlessly traumatising and wicked. It's dark in the sense of being fucking dark. There's a scene towards the middle where the titular sheep-pig, who is voiced by Elizabeth Daily in this go-round (she's much more subdued and nervous than Christine Cavanaugh in the first film, though that may be the script), has just rescued a dog from drowning and now stands before a crowed of awestruck, admiring animals looking to him as something of a Christlike savior and leader; among those supplicating him for help include a dizzy pink-dyed poodle (Russi Taylor), suggesting an even more tragic and psychologically broken Blanche DuBois, having suffered through even more unendurable unspoken abuses in the past. And that's not even as horrifying as the litany of horror stories which are blown by so quickly that we only have time to register the ghastliness of it. "My human tied me in a bag and threw me in the river" says one puppy with the mindless optimism of, well, a puppy; "I'm hungry, my tummy hurts" drones a tiny kitten with a squeaky focus that suggests that this kitten has no familiarity with any other emotion than hunger.

We're a long, long way from even the blithe family-friendly morbidity of the first film in moments like that, and while even Pig in the City doesn't have the stones to spend more than a few seconds on a kitten contemplating its own death, its most optimistic moments tend to occupy about the same level as the first Babe's most hauntingly bleak. None of which makes it a bad film, I don't think, but all of which makes it a profoundly uncomfortable follow-up to the original, a sweet-minded fable in the most literal sense. And this brings me back to my first question: can we honestly say that Pig in the City is actually a good film if it goes so far out of its way to ignore the spirit of its forebear? Ordinarily, the intellectually fair thing is never to compare a movie to any other movie, but sequels tend to all but demand that we do so: they acknowledge, by the fact of their existence, that we're going to bring in some affection for the last film if we're going to commit the time and energy to thew new one, and we are going to view it through that very particular lens. Pig in the City, more than any other sequel I can call to mind, has the feeling of a deliberate renunciation and rejection of this notion. It's as clear a case as you'll find of a filmmaker essentially saying, "you want this? Tough, because I want this."

The filmmaker being George Miller, who co-produced and co-wrote the first Babe, but did not direct. Well, he directed the living shit out of this one - it's not exactly the film that you'd assume the director of the Mad Max pictures would make when tasked with making a kiddie sequel, but it's clearly from the mind of a creator who clearly, almost aggressively, does not give a shit about kids. Pig in the City is a movie made by someone with lots of ideas for a hypnotic, design-driven bad dream about what can happen when an innocent is surrounded by cruelty, cynicism, and selfishness with no support net; it seems that it ends up being broadly "family-friendly" only by accident, never by design.

Now, all that being the case, there's still a tremendous lot about Pig in the City that works a great deal. Maybe not it's weird, disjointed story - short version, Babe accidentally wounds Farmer Hoggett (James Cromwell), so Mrs. Hoggett (Magda Szubanski) takes the pig to a fair to raise some money for presenting the famed sheep pig to admiring crowds; they get waylaid at the airport in the sprawling everycity of Metropolis, and from there Babe gets tangled up with a strange hotel of animal lost souls, while Mrs. Hoggett ends up in prison while hunting for Babe - full of scenes that really don't seem to connect to anything else, and serve just to throw the terrified pig into one new inexplicable situation after another. But Miller self-evidently isn't here for the story, but for the heady atmosphere: Roger Ford's production design, Colin Gibson's art direction, and Kerrie Brown's set decoration are the focus here, creating a world that's crammed with a mixture of every conceivable era and style of city design (Metropolis boasts landmarks from New York, Rio de Janeiro, Paris, Sydney, Chicago, and London, and that's just the super-obvious ones), and has the weird angles and lines of a Tim Burton film without the Gothic flair that makes Burton's films sometimes a bit twee. Pig in the City is many things before it is twee, no small feat for a movie in which a talking pig encounters talking chimpanzees working for an inscrutable clown played by Mickey Rooney.

Between those strange, illogical sets and Andrew Lesnie's dusty black photography thereof (there are scenes set in the daytime but they don't land with nearly as much impact), Pig in the City has quite a fanciful, dreamy sensibility, a fairly astonishing depiction of the Urban Night that's light years from the pastoral charms of the original, but still has a twisted, strange appeal of its own. It is, maybe, the appeal of an adult recalling childhood nightmares with a kind of detached, nostalgic fondness; at any rate, the film moves like a kids' story and has the ellipses and contrived plot shifts of a kids' story, even as it has a stylised darkness that, however it might appeal to the right kind of kid, doesn't really care much if it gets to them.

The whole thing is, really, quite ingenious. The film is about the alien, disorienting feeling of being in the wrong place and not sure how to get away from it; there's not much of a better way to dramatise that with emphatic, visceral immediacy than to take a sweet, simple hero and plunge him into a chaotic world of Langian influences and psychologically broken animals, a far cry from the loving stock characters of Babe. And insofar as much of childhood is feeling disoriented, stuck in an adult world that doesn't make sense and can't be escaped, the film does work as a metaphor for children. Or maybe about children, I don't know. I was well into my 20s when I saw the film the first time, and it didn't strike me as the kind of thing I'd have enjoyed much when I was 8.

The point is, Miller has basically used Pig in the City as a laboratory to experiment with depicting a kind of mad environment of mad characters, for whomever wants it. I might be a little sad that he chose to conduct this experiment with figures I adore as much as I do Babe and company; but I will not pretend that I'm not absolutely delighted that the experiment was done, or that I don't regard Pig in the City as one of the more peculiar and idosyncratic successes of late '90s cinema. It's surely overselling it something fierce to call it the best film of the year that produced The Thin Red Line and saw the U.S. release of Taste of Cherry, as the late Gene Siskel famously did shortly before his death, but I'd far rather see it involved in that conversation than allow it to be swept away by the "this is dark and horrible and a violation of the first movie" response that, even after a decade and a half, it hasn't been entirely able to overcome.