Here's a flash for you: Communism wasn't nice. It was also quite messy. And though there are mountains of historical evidence to that effect, the TNT cable network boldly restates the truism in an elaborate new film of George Orwell's "Animal Farm," premiering tomorrow night at 8.
If you saw "Babe," you know that high-tech puppetry and computer effects can now be combined to create the distinct impression that animals can talk. With this new movie miracle available, it seemed to the producers an ideal time to film Orwell's parable, in which pigs and ducks and cows and chickens live under "animalism," suffer a Stalin-like tyrant's oppression and, oh yes, jabber their little beaks and snouts off.
Yes, yes, okay, we get the message: We must remember not to vote for communists in the next election. Let's not have any commies at our next dinner party. And let's forget about overthrowing the government of the United States by force or violence in order to establish a communist state.
History, it seems, has not only proven Orwell prescient but also made his famous allegory numbingly irrelevant. Can it be seen perhaps as a cautionary fable about any form of totalitarianism or a tract against demagoguery in general? Not as filmed here, with writers Alan Janes and Martyn Burke sticking to specifics that stifle any greater resonance.
Certainly this is an elaborate and visually impressive production, especially for cable, especially for wrestling-dependent trash-master TNT. The illusions are accomplished not just adroitly but sometimes wittily, and there are tricky moments wondrous to behold. But "Animal Farm" is most spectacular in its utter and merciless boredom. And when you have hams like Patrick Stewart bellowing on the soundtrack (his is the voice of Napoleon, potentate pig), it gets to be overbearing as well.
The version submitted for preview made Stewart inescapable, since it starts with a three-minute promo for TNT's December production, the approximately 5,623rd version of "A Christmas Carol," by Charles Dickens. Stewart will be playing Scrooge--to death, it appears--and since the promo tells the whole story, including the redemptive ending, we are thus spared the ordeal of watching it. Stewart has toured America in a one-man version of the classic, but somebody apparently nixed the idea that he play all the parts in the movie, including Tiny Tim.
As for "Animal Farm," you might think a feature full of talking critters would be a natural for kids, but it definitely is not, partly because it includes scenes of an old dead hog being chopped up, partly because kids will be waiting for some semblance of "fun" to emerge. There are some truly cute puppies that appear near the happied-up ending, and even a snippet of a Fats Domino song (huh?) prior to the final fade-out, but one pities any students who've been assigned to watch this by well-meaning or unknowing history teachers.
If the parallels about communism go over younger kids' heads, they might look at "Animal Farm" as a kind of ultimate PETA-propaganda picture, since animals are shown being abused and oppressed at the beginning and soon rise up to chase their human tormentors off the farm. "Man is our enemy," says a pig, sounding much like Maurice Evans in his monkey duds from "Planet of the Apes."
But the complications that ensue, including collusion between the animal leaders and sinister humans up the road, and references to "The Communist Manifesto" and other detritus of that wretched system, make such an interpretation impossible. "Animal Farm" amounts to two torturous hours of belaboring the obvious to bits.