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No, it's not a sequel to Animal House but a unique animated film that became notorious as a terrifying experience among schoolkids in the late 50s and early 60s. Until its ending 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 for Home Vision Entertainment, 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.
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 that move more naturalistically than the oft-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 he's popular. The other animals work without realizing what's going on; the unintelligent sheep bleat out the newly repainted barn rules without realizing 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 worker Boxer labors himself into an early grave ... when he can no longer work, 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 back then there was nothing to compare to the terror on screen, which 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 setup 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 the 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 responsible - as they say in the docu, what works in a book won't necessarily work in a movie, when satisfying an audience is concerned.
Of course 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 spirt 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 so that only the animal's eyes can be seen in dark shots. This transfer gets it right, bringing out the right depth of color and detail, while of course revealing all of the natural animation 'flaws' that I'm glad they didn't remove 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 where 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 great 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:
Supplements: Televsion show-docu
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 25, 2004
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.
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.