The Simpsons Movie
2007Director: David Silverman
Cast: Hank Azaria, Dan Castellaneta, Harry Shearer
he Simpsons Movie starts off the way any good show should—with a drumroll and a laugh. The familiar 20th Century Fox studio banner looms above us, accompanied by its usual fanfare of martial drums and brass, but as the camera settles at the base of that great, glacial number, something strange appears in the center of the “0”—is that little Ralph Wiggum, singing along?
One of the many pleasures offered by The Simpsons Movie is the thrill of seeing Ralph, along with two hundred or so of his fellow Springfieldians, on the silver screen at last. It’s like watching an old friend finally make it big. Of course, the Simpsons have been big a while now—eighteen years, to be precise. Since premiering on the then-fledgling Fox network in 1989, “The Simpsons,” with its effortless blend of pop and art, has achieved the kind of mega-superstardom reserved for phenomena like Elvis, The Beatles, or the Harry Potter novels.
It was probably inevitable, then, that the show would find its way to the big screen—the question was whether it could do so with its sterling reputation intact. Unlike South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut (its predecessor in more ways than one), The Simpsons Movie comes not during the show’s zenith, but long after it was eulogized as an endeavor whose best years had come and gone. And while both show and film fail to top the extraordinary peak (seasons 3-9, give or take), The Simpsons Movie nevertheless confirms what some of us have long suspected: rumors of “The Simpsons’” decline have been greatly exaggerated.
As with most of the show’s best episodes, the plot is set in motion by an act of stupidity by the Simpson patriarch, Homer, who sets off an ecological disaster when he dumps a toxic silo full of “leavings” from his pet pig, Plopper (you heard me), into the already-volatile Lake Springfield. In response, Rumsfeldish head of the EPA Russ Cargill encases all of Springfield in a massive glass dome, and the show’s enormous supporting cast chase the family out of town with torches and pitchforks. It’s a simple set-up, with bigger visuals than an episode could contain, and creator Matt Groening and company remember to give equal scale to the emotional story: Lisa falls in love, Bart debates Homer’s merit as a father, Marge and Homer grow estranged.
Of course, the plot could have been about anything. As with the show’s best episodes, the story only provides a framework for satire, slapstick, family comedy, and hundreds of blink-and-you-missed-them visual gags. Here, the movie is sharp as the show ever was, and it’s clear the writing staff (six screenwriters are credited) worked overtime to stuff as much comedy-per-square-inch into the film as possible. Nearly every supporting character is given a great moment, especially in the movie’s breathless opening act, which constitutes the funniest thirty minutes on screen this summer. Choice gags include a Duff Beer blimp passing over a concert festival, lit up with the motto “Binge Responsibly,” or the oh-so-wrong sight of piggish Police Chief Wiggum eating Lard Lad donuts off the barrel of a loaded gun, or—best of all—a glimpse of Grandpa Simpson flipping through the latest issue of “Oatmeal Enthusiast” magazine.
It is in the offhand charm of bits like these where “The Simpsons” has always been at its best—in the confidence to be fast, funny, and whip-smart all at once. There is a ballsy wit to moments like the one when, faced with a panic-inducing situation in church, Homer flips through the Bible for a solution, crying out: “There’s no answers in here!” It happens so quickly that half the audience doesn’t even realize they’ve just been insulted.
The Simpsons Movie only falters when it slows down—did we really need the ten-minute sojourn to Alaska that grinds the film to a halt at the halfway point? The EPA plot works well enough, but is Cargill—a character we’ve never met before—really the ideal adversary for Homer to face? Doesn’t Mr. Burns provide villainy enough? A mid-film psychedelic dream sequence is pleasantly reminiscent of the episode where Homer eats a hallucinogenic jalapeño, but did we really wait all this time to see the Inuit “Boob Lady” who guides him through his dream?
A big-screen “Simpsons” needs more Moe, more Milhouse, more Mayor Quimby; eventually all the detours start to make the movie feel a slightly above-average episode—the kiss of death for an enterprise like this. And maybe that’s all The Simpson Movie is. But when you set the bar for “average” as high as “The Simpsons” has, above average is more than enough. No, this isn’t a genre-defining masterwork like South Park, but it stands apart from the series, encapsulating in one tidy, eighty-minute package much of what made the show so great. By the end, even baby Maggie seems satisfied; watching the credits from a row of seats onscreen, she removes her pacifier, and offers her final assessment: “Sequel?” I couldn’t agree more.
The Simpsons Movie is currently in wide release.
By: Patrick McKay
Published on: 2007-08-02