Friday, August 3, 2007

The Simpsons Movie

Director: David Silverman
Starring: Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright, Yeardley Smith, Harry Shearer, Hank Azaria, Albert Brooks

Running Time: 87 min.
Rating: PG-13

*** (out of ****)

Why would anyone pay money to watch something in a theater they can just see it at home for free? That's the question Homer Simpson asks the audience at the start of The Simpsons Movie, and it's a good one. The movie is faced with challenging task of giving us more than we'd expect to see on the small screen from the first family of Springfield and I can't tell you I'm completely sure it does that. What I can tell you though is that it's hilarious from start to finish and a hell of a great time at the movies. There are different kinds of funny movies. I'm convinced the most common kind is the one that provides intermitted laughs every once in a while then sprinkles in a scene or two that's absolutely hysterical. The Simpsons Movie is not of that breed. It has one of the highest joke batting averages of any comedy you'll see. While I wasn't on the floor in pain laughing the whole time I was laughing continuously and uninterrupted for 87 straight minutes.

Like the show the jokes come fast and hard, and while some may be better than others, I can't recall a single one that didn't work. You can't say that about many movies these days. Consistency counts for a lot. Was this movie worth waiting 18 years for? Of course not. No movie is. Having said that The Simpsons Movie accomplishes its goal of satisfying the die-hard fans, more casual viewers like myself and I'm willing to bet even people who have never seen a single episode of this beloved series. In fact, they'll probably enjoy it the most since they haven't been spoiled by the high quality of the show and are likely approaching this with no expectations. But really, who hasn't caught the show at least once?

The plot of the movie, much like any on the series, exists solely as an excuse for clever sight gags and biting satire. Their main targets here are environmentalism and the government as Homer (the great Dan Castellaneta) dumps his new pet pig's droppings into Springfield Lake, which causes an environmental pollution problem of cataclysmic proportions. This greatly upsets daughter Lisa (Yeardly Smith) who's been on a crusade to protect the environment with her slideshow presentation, "An Irritating Truth." It also causes a further rift in his relationship with bratty son Bart (Nancy Cartwright) and, up until now, very tolerant wife Marge (Kulie Kavner). As for baby Maggie, well, she can't talk but has other delightfully funny ways of letting her feelings be known. This crisis prompts involvement from the head of The Environmental Protection Agency (Albert Brooks) and even the President himself. And, oh yeah, the President isn't Bush, but Arnold Schwarzenegger, who in his own words was elected to "lead, not read." I didn't know whether to laugh at the idea of Arnold as our President or cry at the prospect that it someday could actually happen. Soon all of Springfield is enclosed, Truman Show-style, in a giant bio-dome and are out for the heads of Homer and family.

A lot of people have claimed this film is just like watching three Simpsons episodes strung together but I don't think that's the case. The scale of the story is appropriately larger for the big screen and the animation is clearly sharper and crisper. In some ways it was a relief to see a good old fashioned cartoon when it seems every other movie is made with CGI these days. I was even happier to see a cartoon after sitting through the awful teaser trailer for Alvin and The Chipmunks that ran before the film. If the film itself is even half as bad as those 2 minutes we're in serious trouble. Everything that was special about that children's classic looks to have been stripped away completely. I'm afraid to know what they have planned for The Smurfs. Luckily, The Simpsons fair much better.

Director David Silverman and creators Matt Groening and James L. Brooks faced the unenviable task of somehow fitting in just about every Springfield character into the movie in a way that makes sense to please the diehards, while at the same telling an entertaining story that works for audiences who have never seen the show. It's impossible to pull that off flawlessly, but this film does come pretty close. The result of that a lot of the characters who could be considered very important to the show are limited to cameos just by the nature of the story and the need to fit everyone in. Fans will complain Montgomery Burns gets the shaft, but at least in his limited screen time he does get to deliver one of the film's funniest lines, which I won't spoil. However, Ned Flanders fans will be happy that his role in this movie is huge, at least in comparison to the rest of the supporting characters. If you've seen the show you know he deserves it and in many ways the sub-plot with Bart looking toward him as a father figure is at the heart of the story. You know Homer has some serious parenting work to do if Bart would rather have the goofy, ambiguously gay Ned Flanders as his dad.

The show has always been known for its cultural relevance and that's on broad display here as an incompetent government and obsessive environmentalism have never seemed more ripe for satire than now. Hey I care about the environment as much as the next guy but I definitely don't want celebrities telling me about it, and especially not at the rate they have been lately. An opening scene with Green Day parodying themselves sharply makes note of that. If the movie has one problem it's that it's enjoyable but doesn't take what we see on the show to another level of greatness like another animated film based on a hit tv show, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, did. Matt Stone and Trey Parker topped themselves and with the feature film delivered something that could possibly be considered funnier than even that series' best episode. However, with The Simpsons the quality of the writing week in and week out for the past 18 years has been so high we almost take it for granted. It could almost be considered impossible to give us something we haven't seen before or for them to top themselves.

What's strange about the film is that it doesn't even run a full hour and a half yet toward the third act it strangely started to feel a little long. The laughs were constant and the story always entertaining so the only thing I can come up with for an explanation is that maybe The Simpsons do work a little bit better on the small screen and in a half hour dose. Either that or we're conditioned for it. I also couldn't shake the feeling that this movie came a little too late. If this had been released in the 90's it likely would have been the highest grossing animated film of all-time. Supposedly Groening put off working on the film so he could concentrate on the series so it's hard to fault him for that. He's stated in interviews that the plan was to do the film when the series was coming to an end, but thankfully that changed when it became clear the end wasn't coming any time soon.
Simpsons fans are a very dedicated and opinionated bunch so it's no small feat that this movie is pleasing many of them. I was lucky enough to see it in a theater that had a lot of them. It was fun to pay attention to what jokes got the biggest laughs and from whom during the film. It seemed every time one section of the theater erupted, another section would respond and yell, "It wasn't THAT funny." Then they would burst out laughing at something else that just got minor giggles from other audience members. I should say the biggest laugh I got was from a hilarious visual punch line to Bart defacing a "Wanted" poster of his family at the gas station. I just couldn't contain myself and was the recipient of many stares for 10 minutes, which is about how long it took me to stop laughing.

I have to shamefully confess that through my life I've only been an on and off watcher of the show, and in recent years it's been a lot more off than on. Why? I'm not exactly sure. It's a shame too because when I was in fifth grade and it first premiered I was its biggest fan and my room could have been a shrine to Springfield. Maybe I'm one of those guilty of taking the show for granted and just assuming it would be there for me whenever I wanted to watch it. I left the theater making a pledge to never let that happen again. When this show finally does hang it up I'm convinced that 50 years from now people will be talking about it's one of the most important shows, animated or otherwise, in American television history. Underneath all that satire and slapstick The Simpsons are really just like us and that's why the show works and we relate to them. They're family. Now, finally, they have a movie that's all their own and one that fans and non-fans can enjoy equally.

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