This on-target animated cartoon faithfully based on George Orwell’s political satire was the first-ever feature-length British animated film.
Until the final reel, Animal Farm sticks faithfully to the original novel, written by Orwell as a satire of the betrayal of the ideals of the Russian Revolution.
On Manor Farm the oppressed animals free themselves from their drunken, decadent human master and take over management of the farm, setting up a democratic community – free from humans – where “all animals are equal”.
The animals work hard and make sacrifices and even repel farmer Jones’ attempts at a counter-revolution when he returns with his drinking buddies from the pub.
Gradually the pigs – the most intelligent animals – begin to assume more and more power, until one of them, pig Napoleon becomes dictator of a state where “all animals are equal – but some animals are more equal than others”.
Enforcing their rule with a pack of vicious dogs, the ascendant pigs relax and drink while the other animals work slavishly.
The mass of the animals, oppressed and terrorised, have just swapped one czar for another.
The movie was directed by husband and wife team Halas-Batchelor – Hungarian-born John Halas and the English Joy Batchelor. To make the film their company was expanded to become the largest animation unit in Western Europe.
The animation strikes a shrewd balance between stylisation and naturalism – the animals are not anthropomorphised, and the farm backgrounds are rendered realistically. Real farmyard noises were recorded for the soundtrack.
The classical composer Matyas Seiber (a Hungarian-born Briton like Halas) contributes a powerful, emotive score that blends folk elements with modernism, and all the animals are voiced – with astounding versatility – by the actor Maurice Denham.
Animal Farm faithfully preserves the anger, compassion and sardonic humour of Orwell’s novel. The cruelty of certain incidents isn’t muted – to the alarm of parents at the time who had taken their children along expecting Disney-esque sentimentality.
Only the ending is modified to something more optimistic. American producer Louis De Rochemont and Halas-Batchelor agreed that the bleak despair of the original was more than audiences could take. The change can claim some historical justification, too. Stalin died while the film was in production.