The animals of Manor Farm have been oppressed for too long under the yoke of the farmer, Mr Jones, so they were eager to listen to the words of wisdom of the oldest animal in their midst, The Major (voiced, as all the animals were, by Maurice Denham). After one particularly bad night when Jones had stayed out drinking and returned to menace them, they decided to hold a meeting and The Major pointed out to them in a speech the injustices of their existences and what they could do about them. A revolution was called for, but before he could lead it he expired - yet the seeds of the uprising had been sown...
The cartoon version of George Orwell's most famous novel along with Nineteen Eighty-Four has long been the subject of controversy: were animators John Halas and Joy Batchelor, here making the first ever British feature cartoon for mass consumption, correct to make the changes they did? The source was an acknowledged classic, a masterwork of the allegorical form which told the tale of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath with fine perception, yet there were those who would have you believe this was simply a dutiful recreation rather than a living, breathing artwork in its own right.
But it remains interesting for all sorts of reasons, not least because of the style they used, something that looked child friendly but actually told a tale better appreciated by adults who could understand the references and what was being alluded to. Orwell's original subtitle for his short novel was "A Fairy Tale", as if he was implementing the same ambiguity, and that came across in this, with fluid, caricatured characters that nevertheless suffer a great deal, and even die in some cases - onscreen, too. There was no sugarcoating of the plotline as after all it had to adhere to the historical record, where the Communists won power by claiming to be introducing equality and fairness, then ended up being exactly the same iron fist of totalitarianism as had been in power before.
The message of "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss" is one for the ages, as is "power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely", both of which much in evidence here, but there was a curious background to the film that fuels that controversy even today. That was because much of the money that went into funding the production was provided by the C.I.A. in America, who saw the material as a useful propaganda tool, and that led to the ending far more optimistic than anything in Orwell. The essential gloom of his vision remained, and many of the book's most celebrated images were recreated with skill, but the rewriting of the close of the story stated outright that the Communist regime would be overthrown.
What happened in real life was that it was not so much overthrown, and not by the U.S.A., than it suffered an inevitable breakdown, so this Animal Farm's predictions were not quite correct, and were lacking an ironic awareness that the second revolution it depicted was pretty much the same as the first, thereby inadvertently stating that what happened was part of a cycle that may well have seen each successive regime turn just as bad as their conquered predecessors. Real life is more complicated than that, and one criticism of the Halas and Batchelor version was that by its very approach it simplified a moral that in the book was more level headed if no less satirical, but appreciated as a technical achievement as well as the fairy tale it said it was then this Animal Farm was impressive. It's just that there was too much of the school tutorial about it for something that you would watch for anything other than education. Music by Matyas Seiber.