Animal Farm (John Stephenson, 1999)

“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”


Now, I made this promise a few years ago to log, on a 3 x 4 inch piece of card, every film I watch. My intention is to be able to access my initial thoughts on a film after I watched it, hopefully, upon reading the card again, I shall tap into those same emotions and remind me better of the film. The idea came from what Peter Biskind noted in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls about Peter Bogdanovich. He done the same thing. Biskind tells us he had thousands and thousands of these cards … having kept a record from a younger age and, obviously, watched more films. I have a few hundred since 2007, but I haven’t counted them i just know I have gone through a few packs of 200 cards. Very few of these cards are used elsewhere. This was by no means the first film to get the fabled card (I had just bought a James Cagney boxset so I think it was The Public Enemy) and, as you can imagine, these reviews all tap into those cards to gage my initial reaction. It does work if you must know – in some cases showing me how naive I was upon the first viewing and, in other cases, showing me how bang-on-target I was… all in all, its a good idea and any film buff I would recommend this form of record taking. (To add to it, its interesting to find that in some cases it is difficult to fill the card while in other cases you feel you could write hundred of cards after the first view). So, Animal Farm, was an inevitable consequence. Sometimes you watch a bum film. Vantage Point is somewhere within the cards. This, though based on a classic story, is bad adaptation. I watched it alongside hundreds of pupils at my school on a day focused on equality and human rights. Rabbit Proof Fence and Watership Down were other options. But this film won out …


So, it is based on George Orwell’s book of the same name. It is an allegory of totalitarianism. Totalitarianism is when a state dictates its own rules on everything – and in that respect, we mean everything. Totally everything. Inevitably, this control – which is usually a political faction rather than a democratic whole – eventually changes to suit its rulers, abusing the people under its control (when this happens, it is called authoritarianism). So, we have animals, who create rules in good faith to live by but, bit-by-bit, the rules are changed to suit the ‘leaders’ who, in this case, are pigs – specifically Napoleon the pig. In this film, the pigs – who topple the humans and despise how they live – begin to live like the humans themselves – getting drunk and even wearing clothes.

Enough of the politics – because you will find lots of that stuff in any books on Stalin (the ruler Napoleon the pig represents) and other historical films. You got the words, so if interested, hunt that information down. As a film – ignoring the highly intelligent allegory Orwell is responsible for – it’s pretty bad. It’s all live-action – akin to Babe – and therefore looks like a joke, negating any serious depth. Even though the themes explored are incredibly deep and emotionally involving. Maybe this is where books cannot be adapted – the allegory dominates your thoughts on reading the book, but when watching the film, some pig speaking Shakespearean English is more comedic than classical. And it is Shakespearean actors hired: Kelsey Grammer (as Snowball), Patrick Stewart (as Napoleon), Peter Ustinov (as Old Major), etc.

It makes the story non-linear by starting after the Animal Farm has fallen apart and then tracks back to its beginning, and how it was set up and how the animals took control of the farm in the first place. When it was Manor Farm, back in the day, the animals were abused, used and taken advantage of – and so they fought back and took over the farm.

Considering the source material, it is surprising to find that inaccuracies abound – in the book (so I see) Old Major dies naturally three days after his speech, while in the film he is shot soon after the speech. This is more ‘action-packed’ I assume. In the book the animals never want humans back while in the film they wish the humans would come back because the regime is so awful. I’m sure that tells a very different story – is the moral that ‘sometimes you have to stick with things because change is wrong – look at these poor saps, they changed things and look what happened to them?’. Not the moral Orwell went for I’m sure.

I won’t waste much time on this. Its a poor adaptation that cashes in its political stance for family fun – which is not the source material’s intention. When I think of the ‘adult’ nature to Fantastic Mr. Fox , I only wish the same rule was applied here because it would be more accurate. Stick with the 1954 animated film – a film with enough political focus that the BBFC of 1954 rated it X … now it’s a U … but clearly its more in line with the intentions of George Orwell. Though I wouldn’t know because I watched this sh*t version instead.

John Stephenson, the director, is worked on many movies. He directed two films (at this time of writing) – this one and another kids movie called Five Children and It in 2004. His real experience lies in special effects – working on Lost in Space and The English Patient. Alas, nowadays he is a second unit director, his next gig being Andrei Konchalovsky’s Nutcracker: The Untold Story …

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