Pigs can't fly, but on movie screens this summer, one sure can talk.
"And they philosophize. And they make a difference," claims Christine Cavanaugh of Studio City, Calif.
She should know. Ms. Cavanaugh is the voice behind the swine who wants to be a sheep dog in "Babe," the live-action film that opened Friday about talking barnyard animals and their endearing relationship with a farmer.
The croaky-voiced actress with an angel's face is part of a suburban San Fernando Valley duo who make good in the present-day fairy tale. James Cromwell of Sherman Oaks plays the stalwart Farmer Hoggett, a man driven by a dream of winning a sheepherding contest in his native Australia.
Both actors said their work on "Babe" probably will be the most important of their careers.
"Andy Warhol said everybody gets their 15 minutes of fame. And if this is mine, I couldn't imagine a better 15 minutes," said Mr. Cromwell, who at 6 feet, 7 inches, towered over the film's set near Sydney, Australia. He is best-known for his former role as Stretch Cunningham on TV's "All in the Family."
"This is one of the most exceptional, worthwhile, well-done pieces of work I'll ever do, because it's a masterpiece and it's a classic and it's a beautiful film and it's full of depth and humanity," echoed Ms. Cavanaugh. "I'm very proud of it. I get carried away with the story and forget I'm listening to myself."
The movie, based on the Dick King-Smith book "The Sheep-Pig," centers on a piglet who has lost his mother. Babe is bewildered and without purpose when Farmer Hoggett wins him at a fair by guessing his weight.
The pig slowly realizes he can make a difference after being adopted by a family of pooches on the farm. His relationship with the farmer blossoms after the top sheep dog goes wacko and Babe saves the herd from a pack of feral hounds.
Filmmakers employed a variety of animatronics, computer animation and live critters -- 900 in all -- to pull off the subtle, convincing dialogue among beasts. Most scenes include an actual animal trick, Mr. Cromwell explained.
He said his animal colleagues were a sheer pleasure to work with -- and less demanding than humans. There wasn't a single request to have their snouts refreshed with mineral water or their slop delivered in silver troughs.
"Not Australian animals," Mr. Cromwell said. "They have no agents . . . It's not so much different from a bunch of actors. These animals are trained to do their trick, hit their mark and do it on cue. Jimmy Cagney said to be an actor, you have to stand straight, put both feet on the ground and say your words."
Mr. Cromwell called his five months filming in Australia "heaven." Both the environs and the locals were a joy.
"I've never seen a crew work like this. In all that time, no one raised their voice. No off-camera cliques. . . . To me, that's very unusual," said Mr. Cromwell.
"Here, [moviemaking] is a big, big business. In Australia, the focus is still doing the best. Aussies are like that; they are really laid back. They work hard, and they play hard."
Given her voice-over work as Gosalyn Mallard in Walt Disney's "Darkwing Duck," Ms. Cavanaugh may have been better-suited for the "Babe" role of Ferdinand, the manic duck who tries to crow like a rooster each morning to avoid becoming a Christmas meal.
Instead, she opted for the pig.
"I wanted the innocent role, the dramatic role," she said of her first starring feature slot. "Besides, Ferdinand [the voice of Danny Mann] needed to be older. And I don't do voices of older boys."
Her voice has a quality similar to that of Yeardley Smith -- the
voice of Lisa Simpson on "The Simpsons" -- but with a slightly lower tone. She said she inherited her gravelly sound from her father.
"It has a texture to it. My friends call me Froggy," said Ms. Cavanaugh, who otherwise has trouble describing herself. "My friends call me eccentric, so maybe that's the problem we're running into right here."
When she's not performing repertory work every weekend at North Hollywood's Playhouse West theater company, Ms. Cavanaugh is writing plays, driving to garage sales in her four-wheel-drive Subaru station wagon or at home with her husband, Kevin, a financial analyst.
There, she gardens and watches "The Simpsons," along with foreign films, documentaries and nature shows. Strings of what she dubs "Rhoda beads" -- after the popular TV series starring Valerie Harper -- dangle from doorways and over windows. The couple, who have no children, enjoy golfing, camping and fishing.
Ms. Cavanaugh grew up in Layton, Utah. For years, the self-described redneck would go to rodeos, dance country swing and only date cowboys.
"But then I met a surfer," she said of her husband. "Riding a bull and riding a surfboard are very similar, and it's very sexy."
Her hopes for success are simple.
"I want people to say, 'She sounded just like a pig,' " Ms. Cavanaugh said.