Britain’s first animated feature film was released 60 years ago. Surprisingly, it wasn’t a story about princesses or princes, magic or dragons. It was far more politically charged than any Disney release has ever been: it was an adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
The film, which was re-released last month, was well received in 1954 and popular with both adults and children. The classic 2D animation was created by husband and wife duo John Halas and Joy Batchelor using more than 250,000 drawings and 1,000 colour backgrounds and taking 300,000 hours of work.
Orwell’s story of the farm animals rising up against their oppressive owners only to discover that some are “more equal than others” was unlikely to have been made into a film without controversy, given Orwell’s struggle to get the original book published. Halas and Batchelor changed the ending. Instead of the animals looking from pig to human, unable to differentiate between the two, the oppressed animals rise up against the pigs. Halas said he wanted to offer viewers a glimmer of hope, although Batchelor had wanted to stick to Orwell’s ending.
Not only was it not your average children’s story, but the film was secretly funded by the CIA. The agency’s involvement with the project, as part of America’s Cold War cultural offensive against the Soviet Union, makes the change in ending less surprising. The film offers hope of the overthrow of the Communist order.
Vivien Halas, the daughter of the filmmakers, says she believes her parents weren’t aware of the CIA’s involvement. She says her father insisted the film demonstrated that the book was “a fable for all time. [The film] is anti-totalitarian and it has a humanist message.”
As we look back on the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, this rings true: while Communism was eventually defeated — another anniversary celebrated this year — Animal Farm remains as relevant as ever, a political fable reminding us of the horrors that come with lack of freedom and abuse of power.