Thursday, August 09, 2007

In Theaters: The Simpsons Movie

I’m finally near a cinema again, and hope to catch up on a lot of films I missed in last month’s hullabaloo. Call it a July in August. I’m actually starting with one of the more recent releases because, well, it fit my schedule. Hopefully this won’t burn me out too quickly.

THE SIMPSONS MOVIE has been in the works in some form or another for many years. In that time, popular opinion of the series has waxed and waned slightly, and it has attained the eternal status of “not as good as it used to be”, meaning there was skepticism about how good the film would be. Personally I think the show’s been on a minor uptick this past season, and more to the point, THE SIMPSONS is always at its best when it’s most cinematic, so I looked forward to a proper theatrical version. In the end, it’s not a disappointment; not as epic as one might hope for, mind you, nor a major shift from what we see on our screens every Sunday, but consistently entertaining and colorful and fun.

The filmmakers and 20th Century Fox did a surprisingly good job keeping the film’s story from the public until release, which is interesting considering how unimportant the story actually is. Granpa Simpson flips out in church on day, babbling about impending disaster, and Marge looks over his prophecy and decides it may be coming true. There’s pollution in Lake Springfield, and it starts to get so bad that the head of the EPA (voiced by A. Brooks, “A” no doubt standing for Albert) convinces President Arnold Schwarzenegger to place the entire town under a giant glass dome. Cut off from food, water, and other supplies, the city starts to degenerate into anarchy. The Simpson family, whose fault this is for roundabout reasons, is forced to flee to Alaska, just as Lisa has found her first love. Homer, meanwhile, adopts a pig. This is important.

A lot of people have said that the film resembles an extended episode, and this is pretty much true. It starts out in the same roundabout manner, the plot taking a while to actually manifest itself as a result of a string of vaguely connected scenes. Which is all well and good; one of the things that distinguished the show early on was its use of the freedom of animation to tell stories on a bigger scale than what live action permitted for most sitcoms; the best episodes are often like little movies in themselves, and the film couldn’t do much to make the Simpsons more movie-like (barring SOUTH PARK’s approach of turning itself into a musical, which is the sort of thing that only works the first time.) To be sure, the film does suffer a problem common to animated features- it’s not quite long enough, and so doesn’t really seem to explore all the comic potential of what it sets up.

Of course, there’s only so far you can take this line of criticism before you end up reviewing the film you wish had been made rather than the one that was. On its own terms, THE SIMPSONS MOVIE is still a hoot. It’s briskly paced (partly by necessity) and thanks to its meandering storyline is able to incorporate lots of disparate gags. Placing the entire town of Springfield in jeopardy (something not new for the series) also allows a lot of room for vignettes featuring the show’s vast supporting cast, which is good; the alchemy of the show depends on the central family for the most part, but they in turn rest on the latticework of the vast and colorful horde of Springfieldians who lend an eerie sense of reality to the show’s yellow-hued world. (Surprisingly, despite the apocalypse looming, C. Montgomery Burns is barely involved. Maybe they’re saving him for the sequel.)

The construction of the film will definitely feel familiar to SIMPSONS fans, but there’s a lot here that’s new. The pig is far and away the best element of the movie, providing some great visual gags and the immortal “Spider-Pig” song; you get the feeling the writers found this whole bit very funny for no good reason, and it’s equally inexplicably hilarious on screen. It’s disappointing when he disappears for the third act of the film, though one hopes he’ll show up in the series. Similarly, Lisa’s new love, an Irish social activist named Colin (who swears to God he is not related to Bono in any way), has potential as a new supporting cast member. There’s some nice development of the core characters, too- though Homer and Marge’s marriage has been tested many, MANY times before, good direction and some excellent voice work by Julie Kavner make us feel that it might just really be in trouble this time.

It was a long time coming and it’s all over too soon, but THE SIMPSONS MOVIE lives up to the show’s long and proud comic tradition. If it doesn’t aspire to be much more than an extended episode of the show, that at least allows it to be as good an extended episode as it can be. The film doesn’t feel burdened by the expectations that must inevitably be attached to a project of this scale; everyone involved just seems to have done what they always do, which is amuse themselves and hopefully anyone watching. It’s a crowd pleaser, with gags ranging from the vulgar to the sublime to the sublimely vulgar, with a few monk’s rewards in the credits and lots of in-jokes, but you get the feeling that the filmmakers aren’t pandering but rather letting us in on the joke. It’s a nice bit of summer silliness in a year that’s been surprisingly good for comedy.

Written by Too Many Damn People To List
Directed by David Silverman

Grade: A-

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