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Animal Farm

Animal Farm(1955)

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Did you know the first feature-length British animated feature, a suitably nihilistic adaptation of George Orwell's junior high reading staple, was bankrolled by the CIA as an anti-Commie propaganda tool? That's the just one of the revelations unearthed in Home Vision's oddball but satisfying decision to release this favorite of classrooms and shortcut-happy students for decades, a politically-entrenched tale about Manor Farm where the animals live in fear and oppression under the hand of brutal, boozing Farmer Jones. The sage words of dying pig Old Major spur the livestock to overthrow their tyrant and establish a new order, with two younger pigs, Snowball and Napoleon, vying for control. Soon the revolutionary leaders become corrupted by their own power as they preach equality for the masses, secretly altering the laws to suit their own needs and drawing secret alliances that ultimately benefit no one but the upper echelon.

Before Watership Down, Where the Wind Blows, and The Plague Dogs sent hordes of young animation fans scurrying for cover, Animal Farm broke ground as a chilling break with the established formulas of Walt Disney and his disciples; while the anthropomorphized animals are still here, their adventures are anything but warm and cuddly. Visually the bulk of the film has a sunny, flat veneer little different from the much later Hanna-Barbera version of Charlotte's Web, but the content and context make this an entirely different beast. All of the animals (voiced by Hammer vet Maurice Denham) suffer mightily in the name of happiness, with the nicest characters being the most passive and likely to be injured during the process of political upheaval. Of course it's all an allegory, but in true Orwell fashion, it's all close enough to real human nature to cut more deeply than you'd imagine.

As most fans of the book know, the climate of 1954 wouldn't allow Orwell's original pessimistic ending to reach the screen (a common fate of numerous literary adaptations during the '50s, not to mention in later years); the ultimate message gets seriously muddled in the process, but if you can overlook the Bad Seed-style tinkering during the last few minutes, the film has plenty to offer. A snapshot of Cold War politics filtered through innocuous, family-friendly tropes, Animal Farm seems to drift in and out of relevance depending on the political climate; with a world in turmoil every few hours, the story seems even more universal as a study of dominance and manipulation rather than a strict interpretation of the failings of Communist Russia.

Home Vision's disc conspicuously touts the restoration performed on this full-frame feature, and the results look pleasing overall. Certainly better than fuzzy versions seen earlier on TV and video, the elements are mostly clean and feature robust colors. Brian Sibley, a well-versed animation historian, provides a very useful commentary track in which he goes over the film and source novel in great detail with loads of trivia peppered throughout. Also included are a selection of storyboards for seven sequences, a 1995 "Down on Animal Farm" featurette (running half an hour and hosted by Tony Robinson) that covers the film's funding background and the stories of its animators, and solid liner notes by Karl Cohen.

For more information about Animal Farm, visit Home Vision Entertainment. To order Animal Farm, go to TCM Shopping.

by Nathaniel Thompson