"Christ! Seven years of college, down the drain!"
On the list of things every teenage boy must complete before graduating into adulthood, watching 'National Lampoon's Animal House' falls somewhere between raiding your parents' liquor cabinet and sniffling women's panties. It may not be important, but somehow, it is essential.
The beauty of of 'Animal House' is that everyone who watches it feels as if it was made just for them -- it endures because every character is an archetype. Every fat nerd believes 'Animal House' is the story of Flounder (stephen Furst). Every suave, sarcastic ladies' man believes 'Animal House is the story of Otter (Tim Matheson). And every seventh-year party animal thinks that 'Animal House' is his life story -- and that he invented the toga party.
But if anything defines the gleefully stupid, futile and lovably rebellious spirit of 'Animal House,' it is John Belushi. He is the spark of insanity that ignited the film and ensured its place in the pantheon of comedy classics. With a wonderfully animated face and eyebrows so mobile he seems able to will them fully around his head, he turns Bluto into a beer-swilling buffoon with a grade-point average of 0.0 and a sweatshirt that reads "College." Every move he makes, from impersonating a zit to smashing Stephen Bishop's guitar against a wall, has the perfect touch of anarchy that defined post-Watergate, pre-Reagan screen comedy.
'Animal House' was directed by John Landis, who, in 1970s films like 'The Blues Brothers' and 'Kentucky Fried Movie,' honed an unappreciated style of controlled insanity that is always madcap but never rudderless. Here every frame is filled with cute and funny touches that reward repeated viewings and play like a live-action parody ripped right from the pages of National Lampoon magazine -- 'Animal House' remains the only film that truly earned such pre-title honors. Even writers Chris Miller, Doug Kenney and Harold Ramis would admit that the rest of the story, if not the entire story, is irrelevant as long as it is believable enough and universal enough to hang 110 minutes of college-themed jokes on. But thank goodness for that.
It is true that 'Animal House' is no longer as raunchy and ribald as it was back in 1978; today it would be downgraded to playfully wacky, especially considering the fun you can have with a flute while at band camp. Yet if 'Animal House' may have lost a bit of its anarchist's edge and subversive politics, it retains something more important and longer-lasting: a broad, good-natured sense of humor. After twenty-five years, 'Animal House' is still the next best thing to attending college.
Almost thirty years on, 'Animal House' looks pretty much how I thought it would look on HD DVD: kinda old, kinda ragged around the edges, yet still with plenty of roguish charm. Okay, maybe I'm overdoing the adjectives here (especially since I'm talking so affectionately about an inanimate object), but I know this transfer will likely come under fire because it is far from "perfect." And no, it can't really match what is probably the best-looking vintage catalog title so far released on either the HD DVD or Blu-ray formats, Warner's 'Blazing Saddles.' Now, I secretly hoped Universal would invest in a new, truly sparkling ground-up remaster of this classic for HD DVD. However, note that John Landis has been reported as saying he initially felt that Universal's remaster on the previous "Double Secret Probation Edition" may have been too good, so he ordered the studio to not make it look so shiny and perfect. Whatever the truth may be, this is probably the best the film is going to look for the foreseeable future.
Universal presents the film in what looks to me like 1.78:1 widescreen (slightly matted from its original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio) and 1080p video, using the VC1 compression codec. The print suffers from obvious aging. There are frequent dirt, speckles and blemishes throughout (though they are not excessive and there are no serious flaws like frame tears or dropouts). Grain, however, appears to have been smoothed out a bit versus the standard DVD, which results in a slightly softer picture but that might be a positive tradeoff for many viewers. Blacks are solid for a film of this vintage, though a bit less pure than the best 1970s-era remasters I've seen. Contrast is also flat; the image never really has a sense of depth to it, though that is due in part due to the photographic style of the film -- the majority of the movie, even the daylight exteriors, appear to have been shot on overcast days. Pretty drab, really. However, color reproduction is not bad, with no obvious smearing or chroma noise. Overall detail is good but not great as well, with shadow delineation on the meager side -- fine details are often hard to discern in darker scenes.
Note that since this is also the latest HD DVD/DVD combo disc from Universal, you can easily compare the differences between both transfers just by flipping over the disc. Personally, I found that the high resolution capabilities of HD don't deliver any huge upgrade over the standard DVD release. There is a bit more detail visible and slightly more vibrant colors, but again, this is no 'Blazing Saddles.' So, while I'm not really impressed with 'Animal House' on HD DVD, the quality is pretty much what I expected.
The audio is about on par with the transfer. Though Universal has re-encoded the Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track from the recent DVD release in Dolby Digital-Plus for this HD DVD, it doesn't help much. 'Animal House' was originally recorded in mono, and despite a bit of digital trickery to pump up the sound design for the surround era, there just is not enough going on here to make for a very involving experience.
Right away, it is obvious that despite what the box says, this might as well be a 2-channel stereo mix. The surrounds are just never active to any discernible degree. We get a bit of separation on some of the songs (namely the "Shout" barroom number) but even the upgraded stereo effects sound processed and obvious. Dialogue is fairly well reproduced for such dated source elements, but ADR is obvious. Dynamic range is about as good as could be expected for a 1978 film; high end still sounds flat and sharp, with midrange compressed at best. Low end is also anemic. Granted, there is nothing going on in 'Animal House' aside from lots of jokes and golden oldies, so the fact that is a perfectly listenable remaster is, I guess, good enough?
(Note that Universal has also included the film's original mono mix for the purists -- though alas, only on the standard DVD side of the disc. Quite frankly, the 5.1 remix does sound a bit phony, and some sounds even appear to have been re-recorded or so obviously tweaked as to be unrecognizable. So the mono mix is a perfectly respectable alternative and, personally, I find watching the film in its original incarnation more nostalgic and charming anyway. Too bad you can only hear it in standard definition. Grrrr!)
'National Lampoon's Animal House' has been released not once but three times previous on standard DVD. First was a dire, full-frame-only monstrosity that is best left forgotten; that was followed by a pretty-good "Collector's Edition" that featured a new 30-minute documentary; then finally the "Double Secret Probation Edition" arrived in 2003, which tacked on yet another reunion featurette and a subtitle trivia track. This new HD DVD combines all of those features together in one package, and is once again dubbed the "Double Secret Probation Edition." (However, note that like some of Warner's HD DVD/DVD combo titles, all of the extra features -- including the trivia track -- are only accessible on the standard DVD side fo the disc. Double grrrr!)
First up is the 30-minute documentary that appeared on the "Collector's Edition," aka "The Yearbook: An Animal House Reunion." Directed by longtime DVD producer JM Kenny, it featured then-new interviews with just about all of the film's main cast and crew, including director John Landis, stars Tim Matheson, Karen Allen, Peter Riegert, Mark Metcalf, and even Kevin Bacon (looking far less smarmy and obnoxious than he did way back in 1978). Though maybe not so fresh anymore as it is about seven or eight years old, it does give a great overview of the development of the film, the casting and how unexpected its eventual success was. I always thought this was a very comprehensive, highly entertaining retrospective, and it is still well worth watching.
New to the "Double Secret Probation Edition" was the "Where Are They Now? A Delta Alumni Update," a 24-minute "mockumentary" that features interviews with the film's cast in character. Now we finally get to find out whatever happened to Otter, Boon, Flounder and the gang twenty-five years on. This is a lot of fun, though the attempts at Christopher Guest-esque sarcasm and irony do fall flat a bit in spots. Still, charming and unique.
Since there is no audio commentary on the disc (apparently, John Landis has never recorded one for any of his films and doesn't seem too keen to), Universal produced a "Animated Anecdotes" subtitle trivia track instead. Dubbed "Did You Know That?", it is sort of like watching the film on VH-1, with lots of tidbits of varying interest popping up on the screen throughout the movie. I do enjoy this kind of fluff -- I am a trivia buff, to be sure -- but admittedly it is hard to take for a solid two hours. Makes for a great drinking game, though, I'm sure...
Rounding out the set is a "new" music video for MXPS' rendition of "Shout," though it is mainly film clips. And for the first time on one of the studio's HD DVD releases (albeit it's kinda cheating, since it is on the DVD side of the disc), Universal has at last thrown in the film's theatrical trailer just for good measure.
'National Lampoon's Animal House' is certainly a classic of cinematic comedy, and a film that probably needs no introduction. If you love it, you don't need me to sell you on it -- and if you hate it, why are you reading this review anyway? Alas, this HD DVD doesn't really offer much over the previous DVD incarnations. The source material hasn't really been upgraded, and the extras are the same as before. However, since this is another HD DVD/DVD combo release from Universal, you get two formats for the price of one. So if you haven't picked up the movie already on disc, you really have nothing to lose.