One can look at 1941 today and justifiably wonder, "What was Steven Spielberg thinking?" Or was he really thinking clearly at all? Long before the events of September 11, 2001 made sneak attacks on the United States a serious matter for modern audiences, 1941 seemed a grotesque misfire of a comedy; most of the material that's supposed to be funny seems silly, and most of the actors seem to be straining to be funny, and going so far over the top as to be ridiculous. Not that there aren't some good moments and scenes, as well as portrayals that, in a more careful and subtle production, would have worked -- Ned Beatty and Lorraine Gary are funny, John Belushi, Slim Pickens, and John Candy have their moments, and Wendie Jo Sperber steals every scene in which she appears. Even Dan Aykroyd (doing what amounts to a dry run for his portrayal of Joe Friday in Dragnet) and Robert Stack do well in straight, nicely understated performances. But the rest -- and there's a lot of "the rest" in a cast of over 50 and a running time of 146 minutes -- is so over-the-top, between the multi-layered stunt work, the bathroom humor, and the compound (and ultimately repetitive) slapstick comedy, and so off-balance and off-putting as to render the movie never more than moderately amusing. All of that makes this picture a chore to enjoy, albeit an interesting one.
What makes 1941 so odd is that Spielberg and company did succeed in creating several more subtle layers of humor, though these mostly take the form of in-jokes that only movie professionals, critics, and pop-culture fanatics could appreciate: Dan Aykroyd's first scene is a brilliant parody of Cliff Robertson's opening scene from Midway (another Universal production), and the opening credits and the time and date references covering the scene changes also parody the style of Universal's large-scale disaster movies, most notably The Hindenburg and Earthquake. Even John Williams got into the act with his score, which is a good parody of his own epic style and displays one element of extraordinary subtlety (for Williams) -- the music associated with John Belushi's crazy pilot utilizes a chord structure heard in the patriotic song "Reuben James," in a way that would be reverential in any other context but here comes off as totally loopy. The movie was released at 118 minutes; however, in keeping with Universal's approach to network showings of its major films, 28 minutes of material was restored for the network presentation of 1941, and was fully reintegrated, in full Panavision aspect ratio, for the mid-'90s laserdisc and the subsequent DVD edition.