There’s more connecting Mad Max and Babe than just the technical challenge of it all, though. The stories that emerge from the Mad Max series are about the fight for civility and the improbable grasp on hope in the face of death. It may sound silly, but Babe trying to survive life on the farm fits this motif pretty snuggly. These are themes that permeate the rest of Miller’s filmography, including the more traditional Oscar-fare Lorenzo’s Oil, the true story of Augusto and Michaela Odone, parents who search for a cure for their son Lorenzo’s adrenoleukodystrophy.
The twin pillars of Millers’ work, crowd-pleasing, visual feasts with easily digestible narratives and stories about hope through perseverance, can also be seen in his well-received animated features, Happy Feet and Happy Feet Two, another pair of oddities in the director’s filmography. The films are jukebox musicals that used then state-of-the-art motion capture technology to tell the story of Mumbles, an emperor penguin who cannot sing the “heartsongs” needed to attract a mate, but can dance. Miller stages the musical numbers like his jaw-dropping action sequences, swapping out crashing cars for tap-dancing flights of fancy. Instead of a wordy script, Miller lets the music do the talking. Happy Feet went on to win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature.
The Mad Max films and Happy Feet share more than broad themes and technical virtuosity, they’re also rooted in visually distinctive settings — the harsh desert and icy Antarctica, respectively. And Miller turned that aspect of his work up to 11 in 1998’s Babe: Pig in the City. Unlike the first film, Miller took the reins on directing, imbuing it more with his flair and devilishness. The titular city, Metropolis, is a maximalist, fantasy-like vision, borrowing from numerous architecture styles and landmarks from around the globe. In the film, the skyline features famous landmarks such as the World Trade Center, the Sears Tower, the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, the IDS Center, the MetLife Building, the Sydney Opera House, and the Hollywood sign, among others. Like the towering mish-mash of buildings in Metropolis, Babe: Pig in the City is a monument to Millers’ unrelenting vision
This is a director who’s craft is rooted in the Silent Era, but is constantly striving to push the medium of film forward. In an interview about his career with the Los Angeles Times in 1996, Miller said, “I think I can be around a thousand years and never understand the [filmmaking] process.” His restless exploration and dedication to creating eye-popping sequences make him just as well suited to gonzo action films as he is to inventive children’s movies; he’s trying to dazzle audiences of all ages. Whether directing pigs or Doofs, Miller is always taking big swings — whether they lead to hits is the studio’s concern.