All Comrades Great and Small
A guest review by Cassiopeia
(10-year-old American Shorthair Felis catus)
The couch near the TV is the comfiest place in the house for a good 12-hour nap. Yes, the television can be rather disturbing to one’s sleep, especially now that my human has installed what is called a SurroundSound system, which might more accurately be called a “Making It Sound Like the Automobile Crash Is Happening Right in the Living Room” system, but any potential disturbance is more than made up for by the fact that when the TV is on, my human is close at hand for tummy rubs should I require them.
I usually ignore the television, naturally, its programming for the most part not worth my attention, but my interest was piqued last night by the film my human was watching. It was called Animal Farm, and it was based on a novel by George Orwell. (I believe I have seen a tattered paperback of such in the piles of books under the coffee table — such fun to tip them over!)
The story (glimpsed through slitted lids — even an interesting film is nothing to lose sleep over) seemed to be about the barnyard animals of an English farm deciding to throw off the cruel oppression of their humans. During the (rather distressingly distracting) advertising breaks, when my human turned her attention to the fat Sunday newspaper, I glanced at the notes she was scribbling during the movie — she’d written things like “darkly humorous parable of demagoguery,” “workers control the means of production,” and “some animals are more equal than others.” I understand that the film was a parody of a human method of government called “communism” (which I learned a little bit about when my human joined me on the couch to watch The Last Emperor). What I don’t understand is why the animals bothered with human methods at all. The animals chase their humans off the farm in a misguided attempt to govern themselves. They miss the whole point of animal-human interaction, which is that the humans are the governed ones.
I noticed immediately that there were no cats on Manor Farm, which the barnyard denizens renamed Animal Farm — if there had been, the pigs who take charge could have learned a thing or two about the benevolent dictatorship with which cats rule their humans. It’s ludicrous to try to exist without humans. They possess the opposable thumb by which they are able to produce the most glorious sound in the universe: the purr of a can opener. The secret to ensuring that one’s humans are docile is in treating them kindly. A human who receives rewards — such as happy purrs, rubbing along the legs, and small, freshly killed rodents on the bed — for good behavior is much more likely to be tractable and manageable than a human who is ignored or treated with disdain, which is what the animals of Manor Farm were guilty of. Of course the animals saw Farmer Jones as their enemy — they had no idea how to induce proper behavior in him.
What Animal Farm needed was some cats, and those poor dogs and goats and hens and such would have avoided a great deal of heartbreak and suffering and at the hands of those quite deluded pigs.
Now that Cassie has had her say, let me just jump in and fill in some details she saw fit to ignore. Thanks to some fairly impressive animatronic and animation work from Jim Henson’s creature shop and excellent voice work from the cast, the TNT Original movie Animal Farm is a bitterly funny and ironic allegory of how oppressive governments take hold.
Major (the voice of Peter Ustinov), the old pig who lords over the animals of Manor Farm, imparts his wisdom to his subjects just before he dies: “man is our enemy… responsible for our suffering.” When his death leaves a void in the barnyard’s leadership, up steps wicked Napoleon (the voice of Patrick Stewart: Star Trek: Insurrection, Moby Dick), who creates for himself a cult of pigsonality, as it were. At first Napoleon seems to be working toward Major’s goals of “justice and freedom” for all who walk on four legs. Eventually, though, through his Guard squad of dogs and with the help of his right-hand pig Squealer (the voice of Ian Holm: A Life Less Ordinary, The Sweet Hereafter) and his hilariously propagandistic films, Napoleon shows himself to be merely a big bully, an animal “more equal” than his comrades and deserving the luxuries he denies to the others while he demands their allegiance.
If Major represented the promise of communism, Napoleon is its reality, declaring criminal intellectuals — here, Snowball (voiced by Kelsey Grammer: Anastasia), a pig who learns to read; Napoleon has his eye on him from the beginning — and dissidents, like hens who refuse to give up their eggs and the dog Jesse (the voice of Julia Ormond) who begins to speak up against Napoleon’s slippery methods of maintaining control.
Some critics have complained about the happy ending (not in Orwell’s original book), which sees a new family of beautiful blond people moving onto Manor Farm, long after Napoleon’s downfall left the farm abandoned. Jesse the dog, exiled but now returning to the farm, looks forward to better times now that new people have arrived. Upbeat? I don’t know. To me there’s an insidious undertone here. What is this new ending meant to represent, in our post-communist, post-Soviet era? Are the shiny happy blond people meant to make us think of, perhaps, UN peacekeepers in their jaunty blue berets or American troops landing to fix the mess the locals have gotten themselves into? Perhaps Jesse and her friends are going to find themselves in the middle of a new, different kind of nastiness.