The George Orwell oeuvre is strong enough to provoke giddy approval from even the most cynical critics. For me, that feeling arises whenever I think about his 1945 novel, Animal Farm. This audacious, sardonic, and sly novel holds such a dear place in my heart because of its deep layer of allegory and its morals pertaining to greed. In the novel, the way a simple, earnest idea unravels into a fierce, oppressive Fascist government draws uncanny parallels to Communism during the Stalinist Era. Even if you don’t get the symbolism, it is well written with a beautifully off the wall premise and well-rounded characters. While I don’t personally believe that the world was clamoring for a film based on this source material, we got one, anyways. An ambitious one, at that.
I think many of us already know the plot to Animal Farm, but if you don’t, let me fill you in. The animals on Manor Farm feel untreated by the farmer, Mr. Jones. This causes Old Major, the eldest pig on the farm, to make a proposal that one of these days animals must rebel. After Old Major, finally, squeals (I would say croaked, but that’d be stupid), the animals, eventually, rebel against Mr. Jones and take over the farm. They create their own government, entitled Animalism, and appoint Snowball, one of the pigs, as leader, until power-hungry pig, Napoleon, takes over and havoc and amendments ensue.
Anyone who has read and analyzed this book or people who are constant thinkers probably can point out the present symbolism. I won’t reveal all of it or go into too much depth about it. All I’ll say is Mr. Jones represents Czar Nicholas II, Snowball represents Leon Trotsky, Napoleon represents Josef Stalin, and the dogs that Napoleon appoints as his security represent the NKVD. Grasp onto that information and let history tell you the rest.
I can recall my sister being given a copy of this film on one of those dollar DVDs you get at Wal-Mart (name drop). It, eventually, ended up being sold, simply because neither my sister nor me were old enough to handle the grim material and understand what the heck was going on. I can comprehend the material currently as a 16-year-old, but to people who haven’t heard of this film or novel and just see the title and image of it on a DVD copy, be warned. This is most definitely not for kids.
Images of mournful or spiteful animals, aggressive-looking people, and non-antiseptic scenes of attacks between these two groups will most likely confuse or frighten young kids. Around this time period, many animated Disney films were released in the 1950s. This was released after Peter Pan, but before Lady and the Tramp, so many people most likely made the assumption that all animation was clean, wholesome entertainment. Wrong. Wrong! This film purchases a stark, grave tone that occasionally surrounds itself in dark, shadowy color schemes.
The tone and color scheme aren’t the only things that contribute to its brilliant sense of atmosphere. Only about 20% of the film has dialogue from the animals or humans. This minimal amount of dialogue, along with the expressive faces of the characters and the expressive score allows the anger and tension to stay constant and increase when necessary. Any humor present in the film is natural, if not always subtle.
The film does, meticulously and painstakingly, translate George Orwell’s satire to film. What I love about the satire in both the book and film is that the story is prioritized more than the satire. The characters don’t become a part of the satire. The satire becomes a part of the characters. By that I mean, George Orwell’s satirical ambitions are executed subtly. The characters aren’t blatantly the people being mocked. They are distinct, three-dimensional beings and the satire becomes an underlying element, if you so chose to look for it. The story would be just as exceptional without the satire. One scene in the film that stood out to me was a scene where the animals were using sickles for farm work. That image is so disdainfully symbolic and yet so modestly and precisely controlled that it sent chills down my spine.
As much as I am going into depth about the film, I have yet to mention two essential elements that warrant discussing: the animation and voice work. After all, this film was the first feature-length theatrical British animated film (the first full-length British animated film, period, was the wartime instructional, Handling Ships). This is to the British what Snow White is to us.
How is the animation? I believe it’s on a level between those 7-minute cartoons before movies and Disney films. The characters are animated with shrewd restraint. At times, the animation even reminded me of the hand-drawn animated films of the late 1990s, in the sense of how the faces looked and how crisp the lines could be. The landscapes are beautifully drawn and the exterior and interior designs of buildings looked quite detailed, at times.
The voice work is masterful. Gordon Heath is intensely intimidating as the narrator of this work. His voice contains such commitment and conviction that it contains similarities to the narration of a 1930s radio drama. However, perhaps, in one of the largest voiceover feats in animated film history, Maurice Denham voices every single, solitary animal in the movie and I wouldn’t be surprised if he voiced all of the humans. It mystifies me that he didn’t become a more bankable or popular voice artist, in the vein of Frank Welker or Jeff Bennett. He gives every animal a dissimilar voice and it is simply marvelous. The filmmakers, also, got real barnyard sounds for each of the animal’s noises, which work brilliantly. That donkey’s fearful and mournful cries manage to be profoundly haunting.
Now, as much as I give praise to this film, I have a couple of quibbles with this film, and I do mean only a couple. My first issue with the film is the pace. The film runs at a brief 71 minutes and manages to feel like a 10 minute animated newsreel about Communism. The brevity makes the film feel rushed.
I guess they just wanted to get the overall jist of the novel and I guess if it were longer, they wouldn’t have been able to put in a lot of the minimal dialogue sequences, but I, at least, want more cohesive character development. I don’t expect it to be a character study and I’m not yearning for dialogue in every scene, but a few silent, character-oriented beats would’ve sufficed. I guess all I’m saying is that 90 minutes would’ve been better than 71 minutes. At the same time, it was the 1950s, so what are you gonna do?
My second issue with the film is the ending. I will not reveal the ending of the book or the film. However, I will say that the book’s ending is one of the most perfect ways to end a book. Sure it’s pessimistic, but it’s also poetic and symbolic. It symbolizes not only the evidence that Communism will never work, but it also symbolizes greed and the flaws and evils of human nature. The ending for the film is too optimistic. Not don’t get me wrong, it is by no means a bad ending. It manages to sustain the angry tone present throughout the film and the final image is freaking awesome, but, to me, substituting pessimism for optimism or even merely hinting at a happy ending does not represent George Orwell’s vision. Period.
However, regardless of its flaws, this is an ambitious project that captures most of the elements that made the novel really freaking good. Now, I feel it is important that the year accompanies the film titles in my headings. I say this because another Animal Farm adaptation was made in 1999. While it is certainly tolerable, it doesn’t have the nuances, drive, or alluring power that this version has. And yes, that version has a happy ending, too. While it mildly works in the context of that film, it’s still too optimistic and cheerful. Note to anyone who may want to attempt a third adaptation of Animal Farm: they do not assuredly, or allegedly, live happily ever after.
RATING: Three and three-quarters stars out of four
(P.S. To clear up any confusion, I don’t think the 1999 version of Animal Farm is good. It almost works, but not quite. I’d give that version two and three-quarters stars out of four, seeing how I will most likely not review that version.)