It was never meant for children, and even though Jim Henson's Creature Shop is responsible for every aspect of the new TV movie Animal Farm (TNT, Sunday, Oct. 3, 8-10 p.m.), it's really a fable designed for adults.
Still, children may find the animatronic characters fascinating. And George Orwell's 1945 satire of Stalinism comes to the small screen with a post-Soviet happy ending, making it more accessible to a family audience.
The story opens with the drunken farmer Jones (voiced by Pete Postlethwaite) mistreating his animals, plowing his fields badly, and ticking off his wife.
His dog Jessie (voiced by Julia Ormond) narrates how, as the animals get hungrier, they begin to grumble among themselves until the smartest pig in the barn calls a meeting and presses for revolution. Old Major (Sir Peter Ustinov) is a thinker who sets up a new, equitable set of "commandments" meant to ease the burdens of animal life. Killed in the line of duty, he becomes a martyr to the cause.
The animals' rebellion drives off the wicked, irresponsible humans, and then the farm must be reorganized. The pig, Snowball (Kelsey Grammer), is the natural leader of the farmyard. He learns to read, rallies the animals to work for each other to bring in the harvest, figures out how to milk the cows, and designs a windmill to ease the working conditions.
But power-hungry Napoleon (Patrick Stewart) and his henchman Squealer (Ian Holm) wrest control from Snowball and drive him from the farm, which begins a Stalinist reign of terror.
As the commandments are rewritten ("All animals are equal" becomes "All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others") by Napoleon and his propagandist, Squealer, a few critters resist and are summarily executed (seen in newsreel footage). Napoleon and his ilk become drunken, just like the old human masters, and the farm falls to ruin. It's all up to Jessie to save whom she can.
It is clear from recent international developments that the fable itself is ever relevant. Napoleon could be any tyrant, as his name suggests, from Hitler to Pol Pot to Slobodan Milosevic.
The utopian dream, followed by the fervor of the populace, the seizure of power, and the corruption of power, are horribly familiar.
The real Stalin appalled Orwell. He was a socialist (Snowball, scholars believe, represents Leon Trotsky), but he was one of the few among the literary lights of that moment who saw what Stalin had done to his people. Because Orwell wrote the book just as Stalin's Russia was helping to win World War II, the story was rejected by four publishers before finally seeing print. Nobody wanted to rock the Allies' boat.
What is most clever about the filming of the story, of course, is the combination of advanced animatronics (robotic animals), real animals, and computer technology that make animal speech look natural and the illusion of the farmyard convincing. It really is difficult to tell which are the real animals and which are machines.
Of course, a stellar cast doesn't hurt the illusion, either. Julia Ormond's voice makes Jessie sensitive, serious, and perceptive. Kelsey Grammer lends a certain grave panache to Snowball, and Ian Holm creates a creepy, sinister Squealer. But it is the voice of Patrick Stewart as the dictator Napoleon that really chills us: persuasively egomaniacal, cruel, and capricious.
Children may enjoy "Animal Farm" for the wondrous animal effects, and parents can help explain the political dimension.
Or, the same night, older children and young teens may enjoy watching H-E-Double Hockey Sticks with their parents instead.
This goofy little sports movie (ABC, Oct. 3, 7-9 p.m.) may have been influenced by C.S. Lewis's "The Screwtape Letters," with more than a touch of Gary Larson's "Far Side" hell jokes stirred into the mix.
Will Friedle stars as a minor demon, Griffelkin, who is dispatched to earth to reap the soul of a self-centered young hockey star, Dave Heinrich (Matthew Lawrence). Beelzebub herself (Rhea Perlman) trains young tempters at Beelzebub Vocational Institute, at the center of the underworld.
Ms. Perlman's peculiar caustic humor is just right for her part as a red-haired fiend who keeps Marie Antoinette's head on her desk to answer the phone. Hell is pictured as a giant gray factory, full of repetitive boring work and complete with proverbial bursts of flame doting the landscape.
But once on earth, deviltry begins to lose its appeal for the inexperienced Griffelkin. What with heavenly double agents around, and some better human impulses, the imp just might miss his mark.
Though the supernatural comedy is familiar enough territory, the fun is in the devilish details.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society