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Animal Farm (1954) – DVD Review

Animal Farm (1954) DVD cover art


Written by: Joy Batchelor, Joseph Bryan III, John Halas, Borden Mace, Philip Stapp & Lothar Wolff, based on the novel by George Orwell
Directed by: Joy Batchelor & John Halas
Starring the Voices of: Maurice Denham & Gordon Heath


  • Original storyboards of scenes
  • Running audio commentary by film historian Brian Sibley
  • Making-of featurette from the BBC: “Down on Animal Farm”
  • Liner notes by art historian Karl Cohen

Released by: Home Vision
Region: 1
Rating: NR
Anamorphic: N/A; appears in its original 1.33:1 format

My Advice: Animation fans must own.

Manor Farm has a problem…its human owner. Mr. Jones is a cruel drunkard, who sleeps off his hangover while his animals go hungry. Finally, after a stirring speech by the porcine patriarch, Old Major, the animals decide they’ve had enough. They drive off Jones and successfully defend the farm, making it their own. The problem is that after a revolution, there’s always the question of: now what? Stay free…or become something worse?

[ad#longpost]You’ve read this book. If you haven’t, then get the hell off my site and get caught up, would you? Kidding. Kinda. The beauty of Orwell’s book is that, unlike others who have misused allegories (coughcoughCSLewiscoughcough), even though the references to the Soviet Union and its many players is quite obvious, it never feels like Orwell is clubbing you over the head with them. This is a good thing.

Adapted into an animated feature over in England (their first feature, as I understand it), the film takes some liberties with the film, which have annoyed many purists over the years. There’s a different ending that not only gives more of an uplift than I’m sure Orwell would have liked, but more to the point, it blunts the horror associated with the book’s ending. There’s also some Disneyfication going on, in the form of a cute little duckling. But the problems are not enough to keep the film from being mostly successful.

The animation is quite good–not cartooning up the animals but having them look and move like animals. And while, sure, some of it looks simplistic and straight from a kiddie film, a lot of it is very spare and effective. And this is definitely not a kiddie film: bits like a surrealistic slaughterhouse hell in the minds of the pigs or the on-camera death of characters let you know that you’re far from the Magic Tea Cup Ride.

The animals confront Mr. Jones from Animal Farm

Probably the most amazing thing about the film–and something I did not know until watching the DVD here–is that every voice apart from the narrator’s was Maurice Denham’s. Granted, the dialogue is few and far between in the film, but the idea that one guy did all of what there is is pretty daunting.

The Home Vision presentation here is quite nice. First up, the video has been digitally restored and it’s never looked better, frankly. Brian Sibley’s commentary is not wall to wall, but what he does bring to the table is quite apt: he points out animation tricks used (like the shotgun blast by Mr. Jones), along with giving some valuable context for the era that the film was created in. This can explain why we have the ending we do, why the duckling’s even involved, and why other changes like the animals’ anthem and the placement of Old Major’s death are significant. While this doesn’t make us agree with the changes any more than when we started, we can at least understand why they were made, and make us feel better that there were reasons involved.

The featurette with host Tony Robinson seems to walk the same line as the film itself, it feels like something out of a kids’ program, but it’s obviously we’re discussing something meant for adults. Robinson and the show provide a great deal of further context, including the evolution of the British animation industry, which is quite helpful. Also of note is the fact that Denham is on camera demonstrating his pig-grunting prowess. Freaking wild.

Maurice Denham from Animal Farm

You also have seven scenes told in storyboards–that is, you see the original storyboards come up as the corresponding audio from the final version of the scene plays. While it’s always nice to have a feature like this that works as picture-in-picture, or lets you toggle from the final version to the storyboard and back, having these here is a nice bit of posterity. I must admit, though, that the sketches that we get a hint of on the actual DVD art…it would have been nice to see more of those, if those are indeed originals.

Finally, Karl Cohen, an animation historian, provides the two-page liner notes, giving mostly information on something Sibley mentions: namely, the CIA’s involvement in the film. Apparently it was two CIA operatives who obtained the rights to the book from Orwell’s widow and then pushed the film into production. They used this as a piece of propaganda, obviously, and there’s some speculation as to whether the changed ending was for political or commercial reasons. Interesting short essay and some nice insight.

Basically, if you’re an animation buff, then this is a no-brainer to own. It’s a piece of animation history and Home Vision has beefed it up with a few tasty bonus bits. If you haven’t seen the film before, you should at least give it a rental. It’s worth viewing multiple times.

Animal Farm artwork

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