Animal Farm (1999)

Film review: Animal Farm (1999), directed by John Stephenson

The Hallmark Channel takes on the George Orwell classic. At their own peril.

Animal Farm is about a group of animals at a neglected farm who rise up and seize control of their farm, driving the drunken farmer (Pete Postlethwaite) and his wife out. Instead, they want to set up their own farm, with their own rules, where animals are in charge. What actually happens is that very quickly, there are two factions building: one headed by the pig Snowflake (voiced by Kelsey Grammer) is based on the equality principles set up by Old Major (voiced by Peter Ustinov), a wise old pig who was the one to start the revolution in the first place, before he got accidentally killed; the second, a totalitarian regime where it’s all hail to the Dear Leader, a pig called Napoleon (Patrick Stewart), with Squealer (Ian Holm) as a trusty sidekick. The story is told from the perspective of the farm dog, Jessie (Julia Ormond).

A movie full of animals sounds cute enough, but it feels very strange. Hallmark gives it almost a Disney feel to it, and I’m wondering who the intended audience is for this. The description given said it’s a fairytale, and indeed, it was shown on a very family friendly time of day too.

The whole point is, it’s not a children’s fairytale at all.

It’s a very dark and sinister story and a criticism of totalitarian regimes, such as Communist Soviet. It’s not pretty. Having talking pigs, horses, cute puppies and ducks doesn’t mean it’s suitable for the youngsters. Don’t park them in front of the telly thinking they’ll be okay. Yes, there’s a pig wearing a monocle, but there are animals dying, babies taken from their mother before their time, political corruption, brain washing and thought control.

It just doesn’t seem as if Hallmark quite realised what they had gotten themselves into. It starts out in a “aww, animals who run their own farm, how cute” and then it gets awkward when there are deaths, songs about how the leader is great and scapegoating the one person who makes sense, and animals that turn into greedy, power-hungry monsters with an alcohol addiction. Changing “we shall not sleep in beds” to “we shall not sleep in beds with sheets” might seem harmless enough, but this is such a dark story that you need something cheerful as a pick-me-up afterwards.

That’s the biggest problem. Technically, the even bigger problem is the lack of development of other characters, such as the vain horse and the donkey (they didn’t really do anything in the film, but are more fleshed-out in the book, apparently), but most of all, the suspension of disbelief is incredible. I don’t know if the book handles it better than this, but I was scratching my head. The animals were hungry because the drunken farmer wouldn’t feed them, and when they decide to break out and do something about it, they don’t just set off for the fields, they break into the feed storage shed. No heading for the hills, living happily ever after – no, it’s running a farm themselves, with pigs holding paintbrushes and making movies. Not to mention all the bits that were cobbled together with pieces of string – who in that group have opposable thumbs?!

I know, it’s a part of the whole “animals behaving just like humans” illusion, but for the illusion to be credible, surely they could have made things even a tiny bit more realistic? The source material is likely to be blamed for this, because the adaptation of course can’t say “and so they headed for the hills and never looked back”, which is what a neglected and hungry animal is more likely to do if they could break out of their confinement, because that would make for an awfully short novel. “Some animals are hungry, so they run away”. Not much social criticism there, really. It feels disjointed and verges on the ridiculous.

Even if it does make a number of brilliant points (“everyone is equal, but some are more equal than others”), I feel more inclined to read the novel after this, just to see how that works. It’s considered a classic and one of those “must read” books, so odds are it’s a pretty good one. Unless it’s one of those “it’s critically acclaimed and oh so clever” so the critics love it but actually, it’s a pretty dull read. It happens. As it goes, this gets 2 totalitarian pigs out of 5 because they’re trying to make it cute when it really isn’t meant to be.

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