Saturday, April 28, 2012

Animal Farm (Halas. Batchelor. 1954)

"All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others."

I can still clearly remember my freshman year of high school and my Honors English class that was taught by the irreplaceable Ms. Banks. Near the end of the first semester the class was required to read a "classic" book that used personification to satirize the events leading to the Stalin revolution in Russia. As a novel, "Animal Farm" does not work for me due to extremely overly-simple reasons. Long story short, animals don't talk. They don't talk to other people , nor do that talk to each other. I get it, that is a dumb reason to hate something as universally acclaimed as the Orwellian classic. But nevertheless I have never been able to appreciate the novel - even after two more reads.

In 1954, Joy Batchelor and John Halas released the first feature-length animated film from the United Kingdom. What did they choose to make? The pair made an adult-themed, and adapted version of "Animal Farm" that has since become the most intriguing adaptation to be made from the story. The animation style has been described as "Disney for adults" and the message of the film is obviously extremely political. Was it meant to be for kids? Maybe. But I highly doubt it would entertain children in 2012.

The history of animation in film is a bit tricky. Walt Disney was making animated short films as far back as 1922, and live-action animation could be seen in foreign films like The Man With The Movie Camera in 1929. But, I guess, Britain was behind the times. It took the great filmmakers of that country almost 20 years after the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to make a widely released animated film? Geez.

Not only does that seem strange, but the reasoning behind that making of Animal Farm has also been publicly pondered for many years. Multiple sources (including IMDB.com) state that the entire project was funded by the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in an effort to promote an anti-communist message in Europe. Whether this is true or not, I am not at liberty to cheapen the accomplishments of Batchelor and Halas. Animal Farm is a fine, and historically important, film. Though honestly, it is not great.

As stated earlier, I am not usually able to accept a story where animals talk to humans, but I have made some notable exceptions. For example, I have never had an issue with Scooby Doo. I think this is because, obviously, it is an animated film. That is okay with me. Do not ask me to sit through the live action version of the meddling teenagers, nor would I ever want to sit through the puppet version of Animal Farm. I guess an animated universe is detached enough for me to accept talking animals. The novel was focused in reality - and that was unappealing for me.

The story relies on animal's ability to communicate with other animals and humans alike. An aged pig named Old Major summons all of the farm animals to the barn and lectures them on their rights. He points out the extremely foul treatment they receive from their owner, Mr. Jones. He scolds them on the importance of staying true to each other and reminds them that all animals should be treated with respect. Old Major begins what he thought would be a revolution to de-thrown a tyrant and regain power for his kind. After teaching them "Beasts of England" he collapse dead in the barn. Now the revolution is in the hands of the livestock.

Because the novel is enormously famous, I will assume that I do not need to be overly-detailed about what happens next. The farm is taken back by the animals, basic rights are decided, Snowball the pig is ousted by the dictator-like, and aptly named, Napoleon who begins adjusting the rules to benefit himself and the rest of the pigs. See the satire? Pigs, notoriously greedy animals, are used to resemble communists. Strong stuff, Orwell.

One notable thing about Animal Farm is the fact that it is an incredibly violent animated movie. The fights between the animals and humans are long, frantic and include some blood and gun-violence. This supports my notion that it was not a film for children. It was initially rated X in England due to adult subject matter, but it has since be re-rated and deemed acceptable for a universal audience. This particular controversy, I believe, would have been embraced by Orwell. But sadly, I ultimately believe he would have dismissed the film after seeing the ending that directly contradicted his desire for satire.

Satire's biggest enemy in any medium is propaganda. In fact, the line between the two is often considered to be blurred. "Animal Farm" was written as straight satire. But the film version changed the story a bit and endorsed the animals' decision to violently overthrow Napoleon after he too aggressively steps over the line. The basis of Old Major's message was that all animals are equal, and that very phrase was painted on the barn for all to see. Eventually that amendment was altered to support the pig's selfish agenda. "All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others". Rather than ending it there, this version has the animals attack. Napoleon is presumably killed in the end. Is this a responsible message to be sending out? Stalin was a bad dude, but it seems like the CIA theory could have some merit.

At 72 minutes, Animal Farm is a very easy film to get through. It is entertaining enough, but it is not a stand-out film in my book. Important? Arguably, yes. But there have been better, more entertaining adult-themed animated films (ex. Fritz the Cat (1972)). Ultimately, I liked it better than I liked the novel, but I didn't love anything about it. Completely average - even for 1954.  

Animal Farm: B-

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