When studying this all those years ago at secondary school, Animal Farm bored me to tears. So did everything, back then, though. Of Mice and Men and The Great Gatsby are books to be shunted in alongside the work of George Orwell as “pieces of literature I have yet to re-visit, away from the iron grip of hellish education institutions”. I imagine part of my disdain toward this classic literature is the accompanying movie. Not this animated nicety from the mid-1950s, but the live-action adaptation from 1999. Surely, there was a better alternative to having Patrick Stewart voice a pig whose death comes from backflipping out of a barnyard. Animal Farm, the animated piece from John Halas and Joy Batchelor, has no such problem. In fact, it makes the dithering terrors of communism and its fallible nature all the more colourful.
Much of this is due to the animation. Animal Farm looks remarkable at times, cultivating parts of nostalgia for the Warner Bros. era, but also venturing deeper into the darker notes provided. Hell, that implies Animal Farm is particularly light. It is the animation that is most effective in displaying the contrast, though. Mr. Jones, the initial owner of Manor Farm, looks sick and pale. That is the effect of his alcoholism, and a wider change to his life comes from the violent nature of his animals, who overthrow his rule and begin to attempt self-sustainability. With gritted teeth and snarling fangs, bulging eyes gather around Mr. Jones and oust him from his property. There the real political commentary begins, but much of that is lost to the film.
There is no need to expect such a topical translation, though. When your funding is from the CIA, it is hard to truly bite down in the critical nature of Orwellian prose. For the period it released, it makes sense to have Animal Farm become an animation. Animals are still to this day notoriously difficult to work with. They have trouble remembering their lines, and, as evidenced by the film, the pigs have drinking problems. To combat this, topics of violent and chilling animation are brought about, on par with that of Disney’s work of the time, but with a menacing touch to some characters. Maurice Denham’s voice work is terribly good, the reciting of the Animal Farm laws is brief, but one of the many spirited, stand-out moments to be offered.
Omissions are made, and those that are do much to derail the narrative. Spinning the great Orwell piece as a satire, rather than a biting political commentary is a change literary purists will hate, but film is the art form where change and experimentation should be applauded. With Animal Farm, there is much to appreciate. There is also much that must be tolerated for these great animations to take hold. A solid endeavour into adapting Animal Farm, but the adaptability of the prose is questionable and has yet to make a wholly convincing transfer to the big screen. Halas and Batchelor try their hardest here and rely heavily on the animation and streamlined basics of such a richly detailed classic.