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Well… this doesn’t look like the How to Train Your Dragon review. Yes, friends, it’s happened once again – a rough week at work combined with an energy-depleting heatwave has pushed back the current film review, but I wanted to make sure something went up this week, so we’re moving on to the next entry in the First Thoughts series a little early: Animal Farm. (Seriously, we’ve just had a massive thunderstorm to break the heat and it was desperately needed).
Aha… yes… “antics”.
So, what is Animal Farm? Originally a 1945 novel by George Orwell, this 1954 animated adaptation was the first filmed version of the story, released just four years after the author’s death. It was directed by John Halas and his wife, Joy Batchelor, who had founded their own animation studio several years earlier in 1940 and used it primarily to create propaganda pieces for the war effort. In fact, they were responsible for creating the very first British animated features – their two previous efforts, Handling Ships (1945) and Water for Firefighting (1948) had not been given wide releases, so Animal Farm was the first British animated film to be seen in theatres, a fact that the promotional materials celebrated as most feature animation of the time came from Hollywood.
If you’ve heard anything at all about this film before, I bet it’s that it was funded by the CIA. Surprisingly enough, this is true; the American Central Intelligence Agency wanted a film adaptation of the book to be made as part of their cultural offensive during the early years of the Cold War, so they initially sought out “father of the docudrama” Louis de Rochemont to produce one. He in turn hired Halas & Batchelor, knowing of their experience in producing propaganda films, and thus work commenced on the now British-American project.
This bizarre turn of events came about after a CIA officer sought the rights to the book from George Orwell’s widow, Sonia; apparently, part of the deal was that she would get to meet her idol, Clark Gable, which was arranged for her. (This part tickles me pink – what kind of conversation must that have been?) Even stranger, that CIA officer just happened to be none other than E. Howard Hunt, who would later become famous as President Richard Nixon’s Watergate burglar. Some critics, such as animation historian Brian Sibley, doubt that the team were fully aware of the source of their film’s funding, but this seems rather unlikely; after all, money doesn’t just appear from nowhere.
Anyway, regardless of the mysterious circumstances of its birth, the project officially got going in November of 1951 (the month that Halas & Batchelor were awarded the contract to make it) and production continued until April 1954, employing a staff of around eighty animators. Of course, the “financial backers” had a vested interest in exactly how the film presented its story, so it’s no surprise to hear that they had some influence over its development.
Most notably, the more optimistic ending was their doing, and they took pains to make sure the script stressed that Napoleon’s regime was “not only as bad as Jones’, but worse and more sadistic”, and that Napoleon was “not only as bad as Jones but vastly worse”. They were even worried that early drafts presented Snowball as too sympathetic, with Batchelor’s version implying the pig to be “intelligent, dynamic, courageous”. This did not fit the anti-communist tone they were shooting for, so a memo was issued declaring that Snowball must be presented as a “fanatic intellectual whose plans if carried through would have led to disaster no less complete than under Napoleon”. De Rochemont, according to Wikipedia, accepted this “suggestion”. Yes, I’m sure he did.
When it came to the casting, Halas & Batchelor took a minimalistic approach and, after going through the familiar debates about how to present their talking animals, decided to have actor Maurice Denham provide the voices for all of the animals. (Luckily for him, only a handful had a significant number of lines). Some narration was also provided by Gordon Heath in a wonderfully plummy voice, which would have given him a tone of authority to audiences of the day who were used to hearing newscasters speak that way. For the music, Mátyás Seiber was brought in, a composer who shared the same Hungarian roots as John Halas, and the bombastic score adds a great deal of eerie atmosphere to many of the film’s key scenes (I especially like the parodic revolutionary song Beasts of England, which is both disturbing and comedic in its cacophony, reminding me strongly of the communist theme The Internationale).
Perhaps it sounds strange to say so, but I honestly quite enjoyed this. It reminded me of later works like Watership Down (1978) and Plague Dogs (1982), and even lighter fare like Chicken Run (2000) to some extent, with their similarly melancholy themes and distinctly British atmospheres. The funny thing is, despite Animal Farm being such a blatant product of its McCarthyistic era, much of what it has to say about society and corruption still feels relevant today. On second thought, that’s not funny at all, but it still makes for a riveting story.
The animation, while it is lively and engaging, is not of Disney-quality, although it is about standard for the fifties. Yet even in its ropiest moments, the quality is no detriment to the viewing experience – it’s always abundantly clear what each character is thinking and feeling, and in a way, the simplicity of the art style feels appropriate as it makes it easier to focus on the political allegories the story is making. At times, you can tell the artists were actively trying to emulate the Disney style of the period, but that only makes the violent contrast between the style and the subject matter all the more striking.
Now, I must admit that I’ve never read the original book by Orwell, although I have read his similarly dystopian classic Nineteen Eighty-Four, which depressed the hell out of me for a week (maybe I should have saved it for when I was older). Seeing this film, however, made me want to give the novel a try. I found the parallels with the Russian revolution fascinating – it’s a period of history I’ve already talked about in a prior review – and animation really lends itself to this kind of allegorical storytelling, with the medium frequently being used to tackle other controversial topics like racial prejudice.
Animal Farm would be a great way to introduce young viewers to the Russian revolution, if there is a “great way” to discuss that topic at all. It’s all here, from the “Bolshevik revolution” represented by the animals’ overthrowing of Farmer Jones, through the rise of “Stalinism” embodied here by the corrupt pig Napoleon, and including references to the Moscow Trials, the Five Year Plans and the Kronstadt Revolt. More recent critics have even suggested that the film’s altered ending with the ousting of Napoleon wound up being ironically appropriate, after the Soviet Union collapsed altogether in 1991.
The parallels with reality are deliberately overt, and just about every player in this world has a historical counterpart, making it easy for a newcomer to piece together the basics of the revolution. Old Major is both Marx and Lenin, Jones is Tsar Nicholas II, Napoleon is Stalin, Snowball is Trotsky, Boxer is the Russian proletariat, Mr. Whymper is the west, Napoleon’s dogs are the Cheka, Squealer is Vyacheslav Molotov, the neighbouring farmers are Nazis… you get the idea. To really hammer home the point, the farm animals which trust the pigs’ new decrees most blindly are literally sheep!
Subtlety may not be this film’s forte, but it does make a sobering point about how absolute power corrupts absolutely, and how the subordinate classes can become desensitised to this corruption through manipulation and propaganda. Especially chilling are the “laws” painted upon the barn wall, which are gradually changed by the pigs to suit their own needs while the narrator wryly notes that the animals’ differing memories of them “must be mistaken”. Finally, all pretences are dropped as the laws are replaced with a simple slogan: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”. By the end of the film, the animals have lost everything to the increasing greed and egocentrism of the pigs, who have become even worse “rulers” than Farmer Jones was, leading to a final uprising that apparently ends the cycle of oppression at last (although the more cynical, Orwellian reading would have Benjamin simply becoming as corrupt as the pigs himself).
At times with this film, you can really feel the filmmakers’ adult vision for the project grappling with the expectation of animation to be suitable for children. In some moments, a small yellow duckling stumbles cutely after the larger animals rather like the tortoise in Snow White, and the animals happily work the fields and tend the crops like something out of an old Silly Symphony… but then, things will suddenly take a brutal turn as animals die of heart attacks on-screen, dogs viciously murder the farm’s inhabitants while armed men shoot and maim countless others, and a horse suffers a visibly painful collapse after being literally worked to death. This alternation between grim and gleeful never feels jarring, but it’s a delicate balancing act that could have easily been botched by a less capable team. It would be easy to laugh at the caricatured character designs, if it weren’t for how disturbingly real and depressingly relevant their plight still feels, even now.
Animal Farm is another one of those curious classics that has gained a reputation over the years for being deceptively “kid-friendly”, before traumatising those young souls who dared to watch it. (Another similarity it shares with Watership Down). It was originally released in New York City on December 29th, 1954, before arriving in its homeland’s theatres in January, where it was a mild success.
Praise was given to the animation and voicework, but there was some predictable criticism about the alteration of Orwell’s ending, with one paper reporting, “Orwell would not have liked this one change, with its substitution of commonplace propaganda for its own reticent, melancholy satire”. Many parents were also alarmed at the “bleakness” of the film, having taken their children to what they thought would be something like a Disney cartoon (anyone who had read the book beforehand would not have made this mistake, that’s for sure). According to a report by Variety in 1974, it took the film fifteen years to recoup its $350,000 budget, but it did eventually turn a profit and has since been vindicated by history as an underrated masterpiece of early British animation.
As long as you know exactly what you’re getting yourself into, I would recommend checking this one out. The themes may be heavy ones, but they’re made easier to digest thanks to the bright, nostalgic animation, and when was the last time an animated film made you ponder your place in society? The film serves as an excellent introduction to Orwell’s original (which I’m adding to my reading list) and holds a solid spot in animation history besides. Perhaps that whimsical poster up there isn’t as misleading as it seems; you probably will laugh and cry at the “antics” of these four-legged revolutionaries, but just remember… those miserable, sobbing horses are not there for nothing.
Thank you so much for reading, comrades, and I hope you’ve enjoyed this review, even if it is a little early! I have next week off work, so once I get back from London, I’ll have a full three days to get back to Dragon – I still don’t like to make promises, but it should be up by about the 5th. The next entry in the First Thoughts series will be the 1973 French film, Fantastic Planet, then it’s on to Rise of the Guardians. Until next time, take care and staaay animated!
By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52417675 – credit for poster
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I0M_D0tPZrc – Steve Reviews covers the film
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Animal_Farm_(1954_film) – Wiki page
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0047834/ – IMDB profile and credit for images