There’s a pretty fair chance that if you went to high school, you wound up reading George Orwell; in my case it was 1984, but another standard was Animal Farm, a fable that retold the Russian Revolution and creation of the Stalinist dictatorship using the livestock at an English farm as stand-ins. I couldn’t with any reliability tell you if this is still the case, but it certainly was when I was in high school (it will also tell you when I went to college, that I am going to mistakenly type the title as Animal House several times before this is finished). Since its publication in 1945, Animal Farm has never gone out of print; would that this 1954 animated version had been so widely available.
Basically, Manor Farm was once a going concern, but as the story begins, its owner, Mr. Jones, has “fallen on evil times, and worse, into bad company”, spending his evenings at the local pub and abusing the animals when he comes home drunk. An ancient and revered hog, Old Major, rouses the animals to revolution on his deathbed, and confronted by a barnyard united against him, Jones flees. He returns with friends, who are similarly chased off, though at a cost – the farm dog is killed, leaving behind her orphaned pups.
The animals make a go of turning the farm around, led by the clever pigs. They have a system of laws, food is plentiful (though the first winter is rough), in general, a worker’s paradise. Unfortunately, the cunning pig Napoleon has been plotting some time, and having raised the orphaned dogs as his personal shock troops, has the idealistic pig Snowball killed… and thus begins the slow corruption of the re-christened Animal Farm.
It’s interesting to note the differences between the book and the movie; the movie is pretty well-considered, compressing some events and omitting others in an effort to engage audiences. There’s a fair amount of humor in the first half, that a lot of people point to as “Disney-fication”, and likely the work of Animation Director John Reed, an import who had worked on several Disney productions, including Fantasia and Three Caballeros. The sight gags are nowhere to be found in Orwell,of course, but provide a light backdrop for the grimness that will come.
And grimness there is. The movie does not shy away from death, though we are spared the worst of it. The assassination of Trotsky is played out as Napoleon literally setting the dogs on Snowball as the prelude to usurping the leadership of Animal Farm. We hear it, though; ditto the execution of the animals involved in an abortive uprising against Napoleon. You may have been suckered into thinking this was Disney at the beginning of the revolution, but this is the aftermath, baby, and it ain’t for children.
Halas and Batchelor Cartoon Films is not a well-known outfit in America; they were largely known for industrial animation, and especially for propaganda shorts made during World War II, a background which positioned them ideally for making a movie out of Animal Farm. The idyllic landscapes have a watercolor beauty which would not be out-of-place in a rival Disney production, to be sure, but it’s the darker, grayer palette of the farm scenes, expecially in the second half, that memorably reinforces the message of the source material. John Halas was a Hungarian emigré who had been trained in design by the Bauhaus school (the Batchelor part of the equation was Joy Batchelor, who began as an assistant but eventually became his wife). That adds a certain Central European flavor to the animation, which also helps to render it distinct.
I should also mention, while we’re talking about propaganda, that the worst-kept secret in the world is that initial funding for the project came from the CIA. Take that, Commies! That possibly led to the other great departure from Orwell’s novel, the ending, where the animals finally have enough, and march on Napoleon and his fellow suit-wearing pigs in a second revolution. Perhaps it was hoped that copies of the movies smuggled across the Iron Curtain would foment similar unrest; more likely it was the desire to give the movie a more upbeat ending than the source novel, where the animals realize they really have it no better than before, and possibly worse.
Then, as we learned in Battle of Algiers, revolution is a long time coming. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989, forty some-odd years after this movie. To say that the new ending to Animal Farm is in any way responsible is absurd, but it has to be admitted that whoever insisted on it was aware of the cycle of history, if not the realities of human nature.
Another facet of the production definitely worth noting is the voice talent of Maurice Denham, a radio actor who supplies all the voices in the movie, save that of the narrator, Gordon Heath, who was a BBC newsreader. Denham has a wide range of well-considered voices at work here, often making you suspect that someone is fibbing about the solo talent. The score by Matyas Sieber, another Hungarian and longtime collaborator with Halas and Batchelor, has a unique flavor, often using instruments not usually found in movie scores, such as the off-kilter accordion used for the drunken Farmer Jones.
TNT produced a live-action version of Animal Farm in 1999, doubtless made possible by the success of 1995’s Babe, and using the same technology. It was even more widely criticized for variances from the source, and though a much higher-caliber roster of voices lent their talents to the effort, it is still Denham’s version of the animals that lives on.
Though I haven’t seen this version, I am certain I would still prefer the animated one; many of the aspects of Animal Farm are heartbreaking, like the eventual fate of Boxer the draft horse. Hero of the Revolution and hardest working animal on the farm, he is injured in the second great battle with the humans, and eventually unable to work. While the other animals are rebuilding a windmill the embittered Farmer Jones had dynamited, the villainous Napoleon sells Boxer to a glue factory in exchange for a crate of whiskey.
Seeing that transpire, even with animatronic models of real animals, would outright kill me. It was bad enough watching it happen with drawings. And that, good people, is the power of a well-made movie, animated or not.
If there is one thing that I have taken away from this outing – and that is besides the fact that I now want to see more of the Halas and Batchelor output, like their 1966 version of Ruddigore – is that their studio made the 1966 Lone Ranger cartoon, which was strikingly different visually from any other cartoon broadcast on Saturday mornings, much darker, and stylized. It has since vanished into undeserved obscurity, and dammit, I want to see them again.
Get to work on that, Universe.