This raunchy comedy was a major success at the time of its release (grossing well over $100 million in theaters alone) and still maintains a strong cult following on home video. It is the gross-out boys-only flick that launched a new wave of rude-n’-crude teen comedies, as well as immortalizing John Belushi as one of America’s most beloved comedic icons.
It’s the 1960s and the Delta fraternity is in trouble with the Faber College’s Dean Wormer (John Vernon) yet again. The frat’s crazy antics have gotten out of hand and the grades of its students have been steadily declining. Grabbing at the opportunity, Dean Wormer uses their poor grades and behavior as an excuse to kick them off the campus. However, the Deltas fight back – and give it all they’ve got.
“Animal House” is solely responsible for the surge of teen-styled comedies in the 1980s and ’90s. There is no other film predating this, to speak of, which mixed sex, profanity, vulgarity, slapstick and rebellion all into one funny little bundle. “Animal House” truly is a revolutionary comedy, for better or worse. Yet in fact for all its offensive material, “Animal House” is joyously likable, infectious and agreeable. The writers – Harold Ramis, Douglas Kenney and Chris Miller – create a plethora of strong characters, which helps define and separate “Animal House” from many of its imitators (and indeed compares it to the equally-enjoyable “American Pie” series, which – like the “Animal” before it – took the time to study and care for its characters, rather than completely exploit them for “humor” – it’s always harder to laugh at characters we don’t care about, and much easier to laugh at those of whom we do).
Director John Landis (who would re-team with Belushi again in 1980 with “The Blues Brothers”) not only understands his cast (mainly Belushi) but also his audience and paves a way for sibling genre entries through his realistic slapstick approach (this is not crazy in the same way as Airplane, Naked Gun or Police Academy is – in fact it’s far more rooted in realism and only a few sequences really get out of hand and turn into classic dumb slapstick).
John Belushi as the alcoholic Bluto Blutarsky (on getting kicked out of college: “Seven years down the drain! I might as well join the Peace Corps!”) remains the scene-stealer to this day, yet despite the film’s close links with Belushi in general he is just a co-star, and when on-screen rarely speaks (a fact played to the film’s comedic advantage – when Bluto gives his final rousing speech, it seems to mean something, even if…well…it doesn’t.) Belushi demanded the largest paycheck of all the actors – including Donald Sutherland – but is hardly the “star” of “Animal House.” Had he been, it may very well not have been as successful as it turned out to be – not because Bluto is annoying, but because introducing him in smaller portions – rather than focusing on him alone – constructs a fall-back mechanism of sorts; when the comedy is lagging too much, they bring in Bluto for support.
Bluto thrives on fun and partying – when he learns of a possible toga party, he begins a chant. One imagines he’s so drunk and stoned he doesn’t really understand much of what is going on. The film never identifies with him on a personal level. He’s just sort of there. And we get the feeling perhaps he’s only involved in the frat’s antics because it’s a blast – does he really care about staying in college? Or does he just want more free booze? “Animal House” might not be the best comedy of all time, and I’m hardly going to start arguing that it is. For one thing, it can tend to be a bit inconsistent – the humor is never continuously strong; rather it comes in bursts. Technically, it’s imperfect – by a long shot. However, whoever said that the amount of laughter alone defines the greatness of a comedy? Do we need it to be fine art? “Animal House” doesn’t only have its fair share of funny material and iconic screen moments, but is also incredibly entertaining, rowdy and cool – the quintessential college film and certainly the sort of comedy any self-respecting bachelor would make sure he views at least two hundred times a year. (Give or take.) All together, now: “Toga, toga, toga!”