I don’t suppose it ever occurred to George Orwell, as he bashed out Animal Farm on his grime-encrusted Remington, that 50 years after writing it, a film would be made of his Stalinist allegory using real animals.
And not just real animals, but real animals that appear to talk. That is, animals which appear to be real and appear to be talking. It has reached the point, such are the technical refinements of computer manipulation and animatronics, where it is almost impossible to tell the difference between a real pig and a fake pig. (Film-makers prefer to use fake pigs, incidentally, as real ones can’t keep still and have a short attention span.)
It took a crew of 65 technicians and artists from Jim Henson’s Creature Workshop six months to create 14 fake animals to work alongside the real ones on John Stephenson’s new live action Animal Farm, released by Mollin Video.
While I watched the film, my three-year-old wandered in and out of the room, accompanied by Thomas The Tank Engine, only momentarily becoming engaged by what is, let’s face it, a pretty grown-up story.
Seeing what looked like a real pig making a speech about communal endeavour and future prosperity, he must have felt confused in more ways than one. Until that point, he’d always assumed only people and steam engines have the gift of speech.
You can see why the director of Babe (Stephenson) wanted to film Animal Farm using the same techniques (inter-cutting between real animals and their animatronic doubles, for instance).
But while Babe had a very particular charm and an appeal across a wide age range, it’s difficult to define the likely catchment for this determinedly adult and didactic drama.
Orwell’s fantasy of the animals rising up, despatching the humans, talking, writing, making laws and finally turning on each other was borne out of political urgency and zeal. He set out with the express purpose of opening people’s eyes to the horrors of Stalinism. I doubt if the book’s entertainment value was even a consideration.
The film’s earlier scenes, in which the animals turn on a drunken, neglectful Pete Postlethwaite and run him and his wife off the farm, are dramatic. But thereafter the film suffers a serious loss of momentum, not helped by the portrayal of the humans as cartoon baddies – greedy, graceless and dim. Worst of all is the tacked-on, feel-good ending. It seems like a total betrayal of Orwell’s template.
Of course, the creation of virtual animals that talk is clever, but is it enough to justify making a film of this scale? Animal gimmickry taken to these extremes tends to distract from what the characters are actually saying.
What the producers might have looked into more thoroughly was whether Animal Farm was a suitable vehicle for this sort of treatment. Even after you’ve persuaded Peter Ustinov and Kelsey Grammer to do the voice-overs, does Orwell’s inspired political allegory lend itself to such a literal realisation?
Animal Farm is available to buy or rent on Mollin Video from 5 June