Friday, August 24, 2012

Four Legs Good

Film: Animal Farm
Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

When it comes to a story like Animal Farm, you fit into one of three categories. First, you’ve read it. Second, you’re not yet 20 and haven’t read it yet. Third, you’re older than 20, haven’t read it, and should be truly ashamed of yourself. Thus, the following will not much discuss the actual story of this film (except as it differs from the short novel), because this is a story you should already know. Yes, you.

Instead, I’d rather talk about this particular adaptation of Orwell’s seminal work. Animal Farm has been adapted a number of times. As far as I know, this is the first version, and it’s a strange one in a number of ways. On the surface, it appears that this is an adaptation designed specifically for children. However, it is still Animal Farm, and while allegorical and simplistic in many ways, this is definitely not a story for kids.

Naturally, there are a number of changes from the original work. Many characters of various levels of importance are missing here. The raven, who seems to represent the ideas of religion in Orwell’s book sort of makes an appearance in this film, but not as a character, and certainly not as a cynical religious herald. The cat is gone as well, as is the vain horse that pulls the farmer’s wagon. I can’t help but thing that a number of these characters had important parts in the original work, and that this one is missing something for not having it.

Additionally, many events are compressed, and not really to the story’s benefit. The continual changing of the laws on the side of the barn, for instance, is given much less play here. The laws change a couple of times (and the animation reflects the recent changes with dripping paint), but only a couple of laws change here until the final revision. Again, that constant changing of what was the agreed upon creed of the animals puts far less emphasis on this section of the story, and it’s a section that requires that emphasis.

And that’s the problem here. At a spare 72 minutes (another indication that it feels made for children despite its subject matter), a great deal has been cut from Orwell’s book, and a number of these cuts either confuse the material, compress it into meaninglessness for those unfamiliar with the story, or reduce the focus from the allegory that Orwell intended.

By far the biggest issue is the tacked-on ending. This happens not because the film’s producers believed that Orwell was too harsh on communism, but because in many ways, this version of Animal Farm is a Cold War propaganda piece. Allowing the pigs, who clearly represent that communist leadership, to end the film still ensconced in those positions of power would simply not do. Instead, we get a couple of minutes after Orwell’s classic ending that at least potentially shows another uprising against a set of cruel masters. But it’s more than that—in the book, the pigs by the end are trading with other farms and are hosting humans. Evidently in this version, the pigs are dealing with other farms on which there have been animal uprisings.

This isn’t to say that everything here is bleak. This version of Animal Far gets a lot right. The animation, for starters, is tremendous. It’s lush and beautiful, harkening back to those classic cartoons of the 1940s and 1950s, with beautifully drawn cell animation. Similarly, the voice work is top-notch. It’s lovingly narrated by Gordon Heath, and all of the animal voices are performed by Maurice Denham. While it’s true that for the most part only pigs speak, Denham did all of the animal noises himself.

I don’t mean to make this review sound like there is nothing of value in this version of Animal Farm because that is simply untrue. But there is a real cloud over it. When you have one of the best-known and appreciated stories by one of the most famous authors of the 20th century, what could possibly possess you to change the ending?

Why to watch Animal Farm: Because it’s Animal Farm.
Why not to watch: The three minutes after Orwell’s ending.


  1. We read Animal Farm in sixth grade, when we were far too young to appreciate anything about the allegory of it. In fact, I think our teacher didn't really delve into the symbolism of the work much. Which meant it was a pretty pointless reading project, then.

    This movie was only okay. Not awful, but not a landmark cinematic event, certainly.

    Speaking of Orwell, two years ago I played a guard in our school district's production of 1984. Long story short, I got to pretend to beat the living crap out of many students onstage. It was pretty awesome.

  2. Sweet!

    I remember seeing this as a kid--I'm sure it's a real memory, because I remembered the "Beasts of England" melody from this one.

    As I took this back to the library today, my 9-year-old asked me about it, and then started telling me all about it, so evidently she's aware of the story as well. Always good when the next generation knows about the classics.

  3. Interesting that this movie made the 1001 list, as I too thought it doesn't come close to touching the book's brilliance.

    Maybe the 1001 committee just wanted to make sure that all the adaptations of great literature were covered?

    1. Yeah, I don't know. It might also be that it's the first major piece of animation to come out of the U.K. Sometimes, films are put here because of reasons other than "it's a great film," and I think that's the case here.

  4. It is not easy to convert a classic book to a movie and more often than not it lets readers of the book down. If however you have not read the book it is a different matter. I am in the group that should be ashamed of myself as I have not read the book and both liked the movie a lot and entirely got the point. I even thought that the point was very cleverly presented. Concerning the ending I was okay with it. If you disconnect the book you have an ending that actually became prophetic.

    1. It's worth a read, and short enough that you can get thorugh it in a weekend. I get the value of this version of it--it cleans up the endings to give us something more uplifting for kids in the audience. I saw this in grade school in a class, so I think there's some validity in that point of view.

  5. I read Animal Farm when I was in my mid-20s, and it's stayed with me. I even did a comic strip for a short-lived zine where I used some elements of Animal Farm. The zine was devoted to music and also to promoting a vegetarian lifestyle. It lasted two issues. And my comic strip was in both issues.

    It was in the form of a puppet show with Penny the Pig and Minnie the Moo-Cow, and they promoted vegetarianism, presumably to children. Penny was a very militant and obnoxious spokesman for vegetarianism. She would turn simple-minded matronly Minnie the Moo-Cow into a whimpering quivering pile of beef with vehement detailed descriptions of what went on in an abattoir.

    In the second episode, I expanded the setting, with Penny, still a puppet, leaving the puppet theater and going on an errand around the farm. She passed by the sheep pen and the sheep were chanting "Four legs good, two legs bad" and she wondered what they were up to. In one of the building, the animals were singing a rather twisted version of "Beasts of England."

    I've been wanting to see the 1954 film version for decades. I rented it way back in the VHS days but the tape was messed up and I only saw the first five minutes. (It was a terrible print, in any case.)

    Last night, I was looking for movies from the List on YouTube, and I came across a nice print of the 1954 Animal Farm! I watched about half of it before going to bed and I watched the rest this morning.

    It reminds me of those lesser Disney classics of the 1950s, like Alice in Wonderland or Wind in the Willows. I like the Disney Alice in Wonderland well enough, but it's not the book!

    And that's how I felt about Animal Farm. I liked it well enough. It was pleasance enough to watch, and it tells the story. But it's not the book!

    I think Animal Farm would make a great Adult Swim series.

    1. The fact that it isn't the book is what bothered me about this. As I think about this, I think I saw this in school, as in one of my grade school teachers (4th grade? I think that sounds right) had us watch this one day in class.

      Of course I read the book eventually, and I remember the first time reading the book, wondering why the book ended the way it did. I figured that out eventually.

      Don't change the damn ending. It changes the meaning of the story, which means it changes the whole intent of why the thing is worth reading in the first place.