In choosing to adapt George Orwell’s 1945 satire on Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary Russia, it’s hard to imagine what audience the filmmakers had in mind. This aesthetically unappealing live-action version of “Animal Farm” appears too dark and political for children, too familiar and simplistic for adults. Perhaps even more important, it lacks the technical accomplishment to pass muster in the age of “Babe.” Premiering Sunday in the U.S. on TNT, but being distributed theatrically in some foreign territories, this serviceable but charmless retelling will likely be quickly forgotten despite the impressive roster of names roped in to voice its barnyard creatures.
The Hallmark production is broadly comparable to director Terry Jones’ 1997 version of another classic of English literature, “The Wind in the Willows.” But while that film made a virtue of its charming, old-fashioned qualities, “Animal Farm” as presented here seems uncomfortably out of its time, despite the enduring merits of Orwell’s political novel.
The basic plot of this fable about the corruption of power — in which pigs stand in for Stalin and Trotsky and an old plow horse fronts for the strength and basic goodness of common man — is well known. Tired of being underfed and mistreated, the animals on a farm run by drunken Mr. Jones (Pete Postlethwaite) revolt against their repressive master and take control of the land, with the brainy pigs becoming the group’s natural leaders.
Idealistic porker Snowball (Kelsey Grammer) teaches himself to read and write and for a time upholds the principles of freedom and equality passed down by wise Old Major (Peter Ustinov). But ruthless Napoleon (Patrick Stewart) insidiously wrestles power from Snowball, scaring him into exile with the help of his vicious constabulary. Under Napoleon’s rule, the greedy, manipulative pigs quickly take on the worst traits of humans, exploiting their intellectual superiority over the more gullible animals and driving the farm to ruin.
Main innovation here with regard to Orwell’s novel and the now seldom-seen 1954 British animated film is the foregrounding as narrator and heroine of Jessie, a Border collie voiced by Julia Ormond. The unfortunate resemblance of this character to surrogate mother Fly in “Babe” — right down to the heart-tugging loss of her pups — only underlines this film’s inferiority on every level.
Given first-time director John Stephenson’s pedigree as part of the technical team behind “Babe” and “Dr. Dolittle” and as head of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop in London, the lack of proficiency in much of the animatronic work here is surprising. Lip-synching and mouth movements are often clumsily realized, and the mix of real animals with some glaringly fake models — notably the pigs and rats — looks clunky and antiquated.
Some humor is introduced in socialist anthems and via the animals’ discovery of television and the pigs’ accessing of home-movie equipment to make their own propaganda newsreels. But mostly this is a dour and joyless affair despite the optimistic turn of its final act, suggesting rebirth following the fall of the regime. The grotesqueness of the pigs seems overstated, and as Napoleon and his henchmen take up residence in the farmhouse and adopt human vices, the tale becomes progressively more unpleasant and distancing. The downbeat mood is further dampened by drab, dark-toned lensing of the Irish locations.
Heading the flesh-and-blood thesps, Postlethwaite (doing double duty as the voice of a mule) strikes an appropriately caricaturish note. But considering the talent assembled in the voice cast, which also includes Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Ian Holm and Paul Scofield, vocal characterizations of the animals are undistinguished.