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DVD SAVANT

Animal Farm


Animal Farm
Home Vision Entertainment
1954 / Color / 1:37 flat full frame / 72 min. / Street Date November 2, 2004 / 24.95
Starring the voices of Maurice Denham, Gordon Heath
Cinematography S.G. Griffiths, J. Gurr, W. Traylor, R. Turk
Original Music Matyas Seiber
Written by Joy Batchelor, Joseph Bryan, John Halas   Borden Mace, Philip Stapp, Lothar Wolff from the novel by George Orwell
Produced and Directed by Joy Batchelor, John Halas

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

No, it's not a sequel to Animal House but a unique animated film that became notorious among schoolkids in the late 50s and early 60s as a terrifying experience. Until its last few seconds Animal Farm is an almost perfect rendering of George Orwell's creepy allegory about the pernicious nature of Communist revolution. This is the one where the Bolsheviks are farmyard pigs and the revolution that should free the farm animals from slavery and abuse becomes just another dreaded power system. Orwell had time before he died to refute the idea that his 1984 was anti-Communist; he said it was about the future of socialistic Britain where technology would make possible an unopposable dictatorship. But Animal Farm was definitely his criticism of the flaws of Communism, at least through the example of Soviet Russia.

HVe's disc is a coup, as the movie is a true animated classic with general appeal and obvious educational applications - just so long as someone's there to explain the ending. Part of Home Vision's promotion of the disc is the recent revelation that Animal Farm was funded by the American C.I.A. as a propaganda tool and shown extensively in foreign countries as anti-Communist education, especially South America. It's a truly strange story.

Synopsis:

The downtrodden livestock of Manor farm hear a prediction by the aged pig Old Major, who promises that a revolution is the only hope for the future. When the drunken farmer Jones abuses the animals the next morning, they run him off. The smarter and better-organized pigs take the lead in the new revolutionary order, figuring out how to make Animal Farm run and drafting its new tenets, which are painted on a barn. The animals work hard and make sacrifices and even repel farmer Jones' attempts at a counterrevolution when he returns with his drinking buddies from the pub. As soon as the farm shows a profit the pigs set themselves up as a ruling elite and deceitfully revise the rules written on the barn to favor their new status as executives. The treacherous pigs have simply replaced farmer Jones as the oppressor.

The first full-length animated feature to come from Great Britain, Animal Farm is a beauty that can boast consistently good artwork and design. Its animated characters move more naturalistically than anthropomorphosed American cartoon animals. They mostly make animal noises, except for the pigs and their half-squealed speeches; actor Maurice Denham does all the voices and he's terrific. Stentorian narration does the rest of the work, identifying the animals by name and advancing the various events with an ironic commentary.

The Russian Revolution equation is easy to discern. The power-mad Alpha pig Napoleon is Joseph Stalin, enforcing a reign of terror by means of fearsome attack dogs he's raised from puppies. Intellectual rival pig Snowball is Trotsky, run out and eventually assassinated because of his popularity. The other animals work without realizing what's going on; the unintelligent sheep bleat out the newly repainted barn rules and never realize that they've been revised.

As in the book, an intelligent donkey is the one to see the hypocrisy and danger of the pigs, but nobody pays any attention to his braying. The farm's noble workhorse Boxer labors himself into an early grave ... when he can no longer contribute, the pigs sell him to the slaughterhouse, pretending he's being taken to a hospital.

Animal Farm's original kick derived from its dark and sinister mood. Anime and more adult animated fare have long since closed the gap, but in 1955 nothing animated could compare with its horror sequences. They seemed more creepy for being expressed through a medium associated exclusively with cute and fuzzy animal characters. The movie is just plain dark, and the animals live mostly in ignorance and fear. The most typical image is an animal or group of animals staring off-screen in shock, dismay or horror at yet another terrible event. Plenty of blood is shed and nightmarish visuals from George Orwell's book surface undiluted. The chickens find a number of their own butchered and hung up in Jones' kitchen, and creepy lighting makes it look like an atrocity scene.

Orwell's book ends with the chilling revelation that the pigs have simply replaced farmer Jones as the dictators of Animal Farm, starving the 'worker' animals to afford luxuries for themselves. According to Home Vision's information, the Halas and Batchelor animation company was entreated to create a new upbeat ending promising a redressing of wrongs, and the film as shot ends with a lot of stern-faced counterrevolutionary animals overwhelming the pigs. The needs of propaganda required a hopeful ending but contemporary story sense was probably equally responsible - as they say in the docu, what satisfies a reading audience won't necessarily work in a movie.

The new ending would have infuriated George Orwell. It was reportedly negotiated with Orwell's widow by getting her an audience with Clark Gable - !! Orwell would also have been apalled by the 1956 Michael Anderson version of 1984 that in some prints ended with a fake 'Down with Big Brother!' final scene.  1

As it stands the movie seems to be in favor of revolution but against opportunistic dictators that ruin the spirit of the revolution. This new ending makes it seem as though a decent Communist regime will now prevail. What kind of anti-Commie message is that? Orwell stuck to the basic idea of Communist dictators being just as pernicious as the monarchs they overthrew, and knew when to quit before his allegory sprang a leak. As your average citizen on the streets of Baghdad might say, things are only that simple in a cartoon.


Home Vision's splendid DVD of Animal Farm is only the second time I've seen a good copy, as the blacks in Eastmancolor prints usually clog up in dark shots so that only the animal's eyes can be seen. This transfer gets it right, bringing out a depth of color and detail while of course revealing all of the natural animation 'flaws' that I'm glad have not been removed through electronic means - the quality of the image would surely have been affected. The evocative music and cleverly-designed soundtrack are excellent.  2

The main extra is a television show from about ten years ago in which an amiable English animator serves as host to a breezy making-of docu. We get interviews with some surviving personnel (Halas and Batchelor died in the 90s) and some amusing recreations of animal noises from Maurice Denham (Curse of the Demon), who passed away in 2002. There are also clips from other Halas & Batchelor short films made before this first feature.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Animal Farm rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Televsion show-docu
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 25, 2004


Footnotes:

1. By the way, the Orwell estate has since made it impossible to distribute the 1956 version of 1984, but the exact reasons aren't clear.
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2. Actually, the first time I saw a good print of Animal Farm was at UCLA's "International Center" in about 1973 with my roommate, future screenwriter Steve Sharon. Hmmm.. does that mean that the International Center was supplied with its good 16mm tech print by the CIA? Verrry interesting.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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