Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Movie and DVD Reviews: The best and not-so-best movies available on DVD, and whatever else catches my eye.

Mimsy Review: Animal House

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, October 18, 1999

Was Milton trying to tell us that being bad is more fun than being good?

Special features

Cast Information5
Making Of8
Production Notes5

The most riotous and influential movie of my generation. Geez, but that’s disgusting. This was one of the first movies I ever saw in the theatre, possibly the first movie. My dad took me to see it when I was about fourteen—and after seeing some of the nudity, just said “we don’t need to tell your mom about those scenes”. Me, I didn’t care so much about the nudity. I was hooked on John Belushi’s craziness.

DirectorJohn Landis
Movie Rating6
Transfer Quality7
Overall Rating8
  • Enhanced Widescreen

This is not your average “coming of age” story. The central theme of “Animal House” is telegraphed when Professor Jennings (Donald Sutherland) bites into an apple while talking about Heaven and Hell. That, and a whole lot of drinking going on. Becoming an adult means that it is time to start drinking heavily. “Is that what you’re going to with your life? Hanging around with a bunch of animals getting drunk every weekend?” “No, after I graduate I’m going to get drunk every night.”

The “making of” section of this DVD is fabulous! It combines interviews with director Landis and many of the original cast and really gives us some fun insight into how the movie came about and how it was filmed.

The DVD is presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1), with English, Spanish, and French dialog and subtitles. Watching Flounder and Pinto in Spanish in the opening sequence is a cheap thrill worth trying at least once.

“Animal House” was a “development” feature. It was a cheap movie to check out a new director’s capabilities and maybe try out some new writers and actors as well. This was director John Landis’ first work for a major studio, and was his third film. Previously, he had directed “Kentucky Fried Movie”. The studio execs privately loved it, but told him they could never do something like that. Did he have anything more mainstream they could work with? Harold Ramis, Chris Miller, and Douglas Kenney, the writers, also got their start here, and went on to do Caddyshack together. Douglas Kenney died that same year, but Ramis went on to do such movies as Ghostbusters and others. (Ramis and Miller worked together again on “Club Paradise”, another wonderful underappreciated comedy. You can see both Kenney and Miller in the movie, as “Stork” and “Hardbar”, respectively.) “Animal House” was also John Belushi’s first major movie role—in what was originally a minor part. Landis and Belushi went on to work together in “The Blues Brothers” after this.

The movie? Oy! It sprung from Chris Miller’s series about college life in “National Lampoon”. (The full title of the movie is “National Lampoon’s Animal House”.) Miller claims that he received his inspiration from real things, and that he had to “tone down” real life to make it believable. For some of the movie this may be true, but other scenes are clearly cartoony: it is slightly believable, for example, that Belushi would be invisible outside of the window of a brightly-lit room, but not that he would be silent banging the ladder continually against the windows and wall. Not that I’m complaining about this scene: in that scene, this worked. But it wasn’t realistic, nor was it meant to be. The same goes for the wonderfully over the top ending: these folks are going to jail for a long, long time in the real world. In general, however, Miller is true to the Greek culture of that period (and somewhat true to it today, on traditional campuses).

“Animal House” is wild, and witty at times, but it is also sophomoric and silly. In its foreshadowing of young White America’s future involvement in the civil rights movement it is downright racist, but it is so through the use of great music, so we let it go—but I’m sure there are some who do not, and I can understand it.

I recently watched it with two friends of mine, one who had seen it back when it came out, and one who was watching it for the first time. The latter thought it was “better than I thought it was going to be”. The other thought it was not as good as he remembered it being. A lot of the humor doesn’t stand up to maturity, but on the other hand the film has a reputation for all of its humor being immature, and that is simply not true. I suppose you could say that it is a “film for all ages”, but in reality it is simply a film for those who like it. Nothing more or less.

The musical score was brilliant. Landis’ family and Elmer Bernstein were good friends, so Landis was able to “score” the great composer. They asked him to, instead of scoring it as a comedy, compose as for a serious film. It was a brilliant choice; they claim it was the first time, on the documentary. At the very least it was exceedingly uncommon before “Animal House”. The music, rather than riding on top of the laugh track, provides a firm foundation for the comedic talents of writers and actors.

The set location was wonderful also, a real college campus up in Oregon. The northwest was chosen because of its resemblance to the northeast, but without the winters that shut down filming. The story on the documentary is that they had hell to pay getting anyone to allow them on campus after a University official would see the script. Finally, one university said yes. The reason, according to Landis, is that the university’s president had once before turned down a script because he thought it would reflect badly on his school, back when he had been president of an Eastern college. That script was “The Graduate”, and said president no longer trusted his ability to read a script. However it worked out, they had great cooperation with the campus, even shooting the dead horse scene in the real president’s office. (Landis seems to have a knack for getting good official cooperation. He received similar cooperation from Chicago officials during filming of “The Blues Brothers”.)

The trailer on this film is higher quality than other contemporary trailers—a bit odd given that this film had a lower budget than most contemporary movies. It begins to approximate the modern “action-packed” jumping-about trailer. The “big” extra, however, is the “Reunion Yearbook”, a half-hour documentary about the making of Animal House, including interviews with a number of the original actors. This and Blues Brothers are really the best “making of” extras I’ve seen on DVD so far. This is actually a documentary you’ll want to watch more than once!

If you have never seen “Animal House”, you should definitely rent it. If you have, you already know whether or not it is worth a purchase. If you’re looking for my advice, I say okay. A lot of that may be nostalgia, of course, but there’s no denying that it is great to see Otis Day and the Knights on the screen again. Buy or rent this movie, if you have to debauch a 13-year old to get it!

Recommendation: Purchase

DirectorJohn Landis
ActorJohn Belushi
Spoken languagesEnglish, French, Spanish
SubtitlesEnglish, French, Spanish
Special FeaturesCast Information, Making Of, Production Notes, Trailer
More links

If you enjoyed Animal House…

For more about drug, you might also be interested in Altered States, Dazed and Confused, Detroit Rock City, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Heavy Metal, and Yellow Submarine.

For more about John Belushi, you might also be interested in 1941 and The Blues Brothers.

For more about John Landis, you might also be interested in Kentucky Fried Movie and The Blues Brothers.

For more about sixties, you might also be interested in Hair.