Animal Farm (1954)

*. I first saw this movie when I was a kid, around the same time I first read Orwell’s novel. I’m no longer sure which came first (for me). I’m pretty sure though that I missed all of the political allegory, not knowing anything much about Stalin and Trotsky (roughly Napoleon and Snowball, respectively).
*. Did that make a difference? Well, like any good allegory Animal Farm can be appreciated on different levels. It’s not for children, despite Orwell subtitling it “A Fairy Story,” but that’s when a lot of us were introduced to it and I think young people can appreciate its message. The donkey Benjamin running after the truck taking Boxer away to the glue factory is a scene that’s stuck in my head for over forty years now.

*. Then again, I also remember scenes from classic Looney Tunes/Merry Melodies cartoons from around the same time. There’s no telling what’s going to stick in one’s head. And the animation here, by husband-and-wife team John Halas and Joy Batchelor, has much the same look as the Merry Melodies, with a lot of static painted backdrops with little movement in many of the shots. There’s also a cute little baby duck (not in Orwell) that seems to have wandered off the Warner Bros. lot.
*. There are other, greater, liberties taken with the source material however. These apparently came from the fact that its financial backers included the CIA, as part of a program to create anti-communist art. Or let’s just call it propaganda. Halas and Batchelor may not have known about the Agency’s involvement, but as a result of their influence the ending is changed quite radically, with the animals rising up against the now tyrannous pigs in yet another turn of the revolutionary wheel.
*. I have a hard time seeing the point in making this change. In the first place, Orwell’s novel strikes me as being quite sufficiently anti-Stalinist, especially with the nightmarish pack of dogs dealing out the state violence. Not to mention the fact that Stalin died in 1953. Second, I question the revolt of the masses at the end on two counts. Did the CIA think it realistic that the Russian people would rise up and throw off their communist rulers? That’s not even what happened in 1989. Then, is the idea of revolution something that the CIA wanted to endorse? Isn’t that how the farm got into this mess in the first place?

*. Up until the end I thought it a respectable adaptation. Maurice Denham is the narrator and does all of the voices. Perhaps as a result the dialogue has been greatly cut, as well as all of the lyrics to “Beasts of England, which is replaced by a barnyard hubbub. There is also some narration, a lot of which is probably unnecessary. The workhorse Boxer no longer has a girlfriend (Clover) but only a longtime companion in Benjamin. It is this stablemate who will be left to mourn (and avenge) his death.
*. The animation works, though I mentioned the connection to the golden age of American cartoons, which is what a lot of it looks like. That’s not a compliment or a criticism, but just saying it has the look of its time. There are some electric moments, and I enjoyed Old Major appearing to dissolve into a porky puddle after his big speech about eeeee-quality. Much of the art has a kind of liquid quality that may be interpreted as having some thematic relevance as well, with all that is solid in the old social order melting into air. As Mr. Jones turns to drink he sinks into a kind of deliquescence that fits the same pattern.
*. According to historians this was the first cartoon feature film made in Britain, and I think it stands up pretty well. It plays much better today than the live-action 1999 version anyway.

5 thoughts on “Animal Farm (1954)

  1. tensecondsfromnow

    Interesting that, as you say, the point is muted here. I keep hearing US politicians say that it’s ‘Orwellian’ that they’re pulled up for public lying. They couldn’t be further from the meaning of Orwell’s work. They just understand his name to be an intellectual way of saying ‘bad future’ when Orwell’s subject is often how we think about the past, and the dangers of authority figures being allowed to lie about history in public. Like The Crucible, this is a text foisted on kids when the’ll need a set of notes to understand it, and probably puts more off that get it. Good animation for the time, though.

    1. Alex Good

      The hypocrisy of modern politicians truly has no limits. Plus I’m pretty sure none of them read. I mean read Orwell or anything else. The few who quote from him usually only do so to equate socialism with totalitarianism, which is again missing the point.

      1. tensecondsfromnow

        Totally. Would love to see some of these numbskulls actually explain what they think Orwell is saying…the level of discussion is collapsing into sloganeering, which is a problem that is, how can I put it, truly Orwellian? But without the duck…

    1. Alex Good

      Yeah, when I first read it I didn’t know anything about the Bolshevik revolution. But I don’t think that’s necessary, as the politics are pretty much universal. Lots of Napoleons still around.


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