Judge Joel Pearce was looking forward to seeing the animated Bluto, Otter, and Niedermeyer—until he remembered that he's actually smart and knows the difference between the works of Orwell and Ramis.
All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.
It is now 50 years since this animated retelling of George Orwell's Animal Farm was first released. Recently, it has been discovered that the CIA funded the project as anti-communist propaganda. This is a very thoughtful DVD release of the film, with an impressive restoration and extras that pay attention to its context as well as its content. Although the film has certainly aged, it's a fascinating artifact of another era, which many fans of animation will want to add to their collections.
Facts of the Case
Animal Farm is an allegory of the Russian Revolution. The animals on Farmer Jones' farm become fed up with his irresponsibility and drunkenness, and stage a coup after the death of Old Major, an ancient and wise pig. For a while, the new society that they create is wonderful, but the pigs begin to get greedy, led by the selfish Napoleon and his attack dogs. After a few years, the situation for the other animals becomes even worse than it had been under the hold of Jones.
The creation of an animated version of Animal Farm is a daunting proposition. North American audiences aren't used to seeing stories this dark and vicious told through animation, and shifting the tone to make it a children's story would completely betray the source material. Besides, how do you explain to a five-year-old that this is a political allegory? The creators of Animal Farm took the middle road, inserting some moments of humor and cuteness into the still unpleasant and dark story. The end result often feels disjointed, but I think that may be intentional. It works to highlight the horror of the ending, when the ideals of Old Major start to disintegrate because of the actions of the pigs. The narration style is extremely simple, and the animals seem at first to be just like those in animated stories for children. It seems incongruous when they start to become violent, a dramatic choice that does an excellent job of replicating the experience of reading the novel. All of us need to face the brutal realities of human nature, but it's hard for most of us to accept that we could be this horrible to other people.
Although there is no question that Animal Farm is an interesting example of propaganda and an effective political allegory, I am not sure it is quite as effective as a film. This disjointed tone never quite comes together, and the lead-up to that chilling final frame isn't really clear enough to make it as effective as it should be. Those cute moments do work to create contrast with the horrors of the story, but never find a place in the overall structure. This film can't really be watched and enjoyed on any level except as a political allegory and historical artifact. The best satire works whether or not you understand what is being commented on, and this does not manage to succeed in that respect. Also, the movement of the characters is often synchronized with the music. This works very well in Warner Brothers cartoons and the older Disney films, but it seems out of place here.
Fortunately, the designers of this DVD seem to realize that. The main extra is a commentary track with "animation historian" Brian Sibley. His main approach is to describe the most important aspects of the film, pointing to the general meaning and comparing it to the original book. He has an exceptional knowledge of the production of this project, and of animation in general, so the commentary is well worth investigating for anyone who is studying the film or the novel. There is also a production featurette, which is a recent production presented by Tony Robinson. It also spends quite a bit of time analyzing the context of the film. It's really directed towards older children who are being exposed to the story for the first time, but it's a great overview of the Russian Revolution and the history of the use of animation in propaganda. It's one of the stronger featurettes that I have seen. There is also a collection of a few scenes that play using the original storyboards. They are not nearly as detailed as contemporary animation storyboards, but they are interesting to see.
The restoration of the film for this transfer is also impressive. The picture is great; carefully preserved to recreate the image without damaging the original look and feel. It doesn't look as sharp or clean as new animation, but it probably looks almost exactly like it did during its original run. The colors aren't oversaturated, and it doesn't look too digital. There are relatively few instances of dirt or print flaws. The sound is presented in its original mono, which is clean but doesn't really impress. Still, this is a great preservation of Animal Farm, which will do a fine job of replacing a worn-out VHS copy.
Although it's not a film to pick up as entertainment for your toddlers, Animal Farm remains an effective and fascinating example of classic animation. The disc does a fantastic job of capturing the tone and concept of the film and book, making it a worthwhile investment for students of literature and film.
This DVD is more equal than many. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Home Vision Entertainment
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