"Animal House" is cinematically sloppy—I've now seen the film twice and I still can't separate some of the people. There always seem to be two characters who look much alike to represent a single type. It's full of supposedly comic scenes that have no adequate punch lines to end them, and some of the cross-cutting seems to have been done during a blackout. Yet the movie's fondness for sloth, mess, vulgarity, non-conformism (circa 1962, of course), as demonstrated by the members of an epically disorganized college fraternity, is frequently very, very funny.
The targets of its humor (gung-ho fraternities, neatness, Nixon, chastity, sobriety, Vietnam, patriotism, ceramics) are not exactly sacred at this point, but the gusto of the movie is undeniably appealing. So too are the performers….
The success of "Animal House" … is rather easier understood after the fact than before. Among other things, "Animal House" calls attention to a sentimentality not previously acknowledged in a movie like "American Graffitti." I suspect too that some portion of the movie-going public is a lot more bored with orderliness—with the formulas—of conventional comedies and dramas in theaters and on television than has been recognized heretofore. ["Animal House" manages] to suggest the sublime, if sometimes infantile, joys of chaos and disorder without seriously questioning the system that contains them.
Vincent Canby, "What's So Funny about Potheads and Toga Parties?" in The New York Times, Section 2 (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 19, 1978, p. 17.∗