The first screen adaptation of George Orwell's political fable to reach the screen was in 1955, an animated version that tended to diminish the author's brutally hard-edged satire of totalitarian governments. I guess they figured that since "Animal Farm" was about talking animals, they'd make it into a cartoon and change the ending. Now, with advancements in computer graphics and animatronics, plus the success of the "Babe" movies, we have a more convincing account using mostly real-looking animals and sticking a little closer to the plot. It's an improvement, but it's not what most fans of the book were probably hoping for.
You all remember the story. It's commonly taught in high school and, ill-advisedly, in lower grades. The lesson warns against the dangers of complacency and failing to think for oneself. The story of Animalism is a thinly disguised account of the rise of Russian Communism, here serving as a metaphor for all such dictatorships that promise one thing but deliver another. It begins on Manor Farm, run by a lazy, alcoholic farmer named Jones. One night an elderly boar, Old Major, calls a meeting of the animals to tell them his vision of a perfect world. He explains that Man is at the root of all their troubles and that only by overthrowing Man and working for themselves will they achieve true equality and happiness.
He dies, but his words live on; and before long the animals overthrow their master, oust him from the farm, and assume control. Then all goes well until two of the animal leaders, the pigs Snowball and Napoleon, get over-ambitious. Eventually, Napoleon chases Snowball away and assumes the role of absolute dictator, essentially taking over where Farmer Jones left off, leaving the rest of the animals in worse condition than they were in before the rebellion.
It is symbolic, of course. Manor Farm is Russia; its change to Animal Farm is the U.S.S.R. Farmer Jones (Pete Postlethwaite) is Czar Nicholas; Old Major (voiced by Peter Ustinov) is Karl Marx, looking and sounding, however, more like Winston Churchill; Snowball (Kelsey Grammer) is Leon Trotsky; Napoleon (Patrick Stewart) is Joseph Stalin. The powerful but slow-witted horse Boxer (Paul Schofield) represents the working class; the fast-talking pig Squealer (Ian Holm) the propaganda ministers of the world; the ribbon-loving horse Mollie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) the defectors. And so on. The story is told in flashback by the dog, Jessie (Julia Ormond), who, in the movie at least, is the only animal who has an inkling of what's truly going on. Jim Henson's Creature Shop provided the animatronics and special effects, although they are not up the standards of the "Babe" films.
Most of the story line follows Orwell's account, and for this reason I can marginally recommend the film. But, the deviations are annoying. Why are Hollywood filmmakers so full of themselves that they think they can seriously improve upon a literary classic? I can understand directors and screenwriters trimming a novel to fit a two-hour time slot, but I get perturbed when they think they know more than a book's author and start changing whole scenes. Think of Demi Moore's comments about "The Scarlet Letter" a few years back: "We wanted to update it for the nineties. Besides, who reads it anymore, anyway?" Uh, like, how about half a million high school kids a year, among others.
So, what's changed about "Animal Farm" that peeves me? Let's start with the film's opening sequence. As I said before, it's narrated by the dog Jessie, a narration that isn't in the book and adds nothing to the story. Worse, the dog gives away the whole conclusion of the film in the first two minutes! Even worse than that, the ending itself is changed. In a nod toward the falling of the Berlin Wall, the movie ignores Orwell's pessimist warnings and, like the cartoon before it, opts for a happy ending. The pigs all die, the farm falls into disrepair, and new owners take over, presumably giving new hope for the future of democracy. Did the filmmakers neglect to notice that the most populous country in the world, China, still lives under the yoke of Communism? A film that might have offered vision and impact is, instead, diluted into fodder for children.
Among the movie's minor vices are the complete changing of the song "Beasts of England," the unaccountable shooting of Old Major, the introduction of microphones and television sets into the farm yard, an expanded relationship between Farmer Jones and his neighbor Pilkington, and a wholly incomprehensible affair between Jones and Pilkington's wife! Did I say "minor vices"? What was director John Stephenson thinking of?
"Animal Farm" was a joint production of Hallmark Entertainment and the TNT cable network. This may explain the added sweetness and light. Because it was originally shown on TV, I expected its screen size to be that which is stated twice on the box, full screen. But no, it's projected in a 1.72:1 widescreen ratio. No explanation is given whether this is a matted or an expanded rendering of the standard-frame version. The image quality is slightly blurred, and colors can range from vividly bright to somewhat faded. No matter what the circumstance, however, the hues never seem deep or lustrous.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is not particularly wide ranging or all encompassing but comes sporadically to life in the rear channels, such as at the Battle of the Cowshed, Snowball's ousting, and the climactic storm scene. It is decent, serviceable sound.
Beyond the movie, there are interviews with Kelsey Grammer and producer Robert Halmi, Sr.; storyboard comparisons; a section called "The Animal Rules," which takes you to parts of the movie to illustrate its points; a little historical background on the Russian Revolution; cast and crew information; production notes; thirty-two scene selections; and a trailer.
Is there a moral to this film after all? Yes. It is that some fables should be left on the written page; they lose something in their translation to the screen. One thing, though: English teachers will be able to tell which kids read the book and which ones tried to fake it with the movie. Thank Hollywood for small favors.