The big-screen incarnation of The Simpsons plays like an extended episode of the show, chock full of plotting, sight gags, and eliptical story turns, and funnier than the average episode from the past several seasons. Groening calls to service his cadre of veteran writers — an army of them, an Apollo moon mission’s worth. True, there is a smattering of laugh-out-loud jokes, no question, but the project never quite blasts into sublimities of the show’s early high-comic stratosphere. The Simpsons‘ enduring appeal lies, ultimately, in its spirit, not in how inspired the laughs may or may not be. Groening, Brooks, and company’s attitude, to their great credit, never seeks to pander to the multiplex crowd. Instead, they’re as deadpan and workmanlike as ever, trying to fit together the funniest feature-length’s worth of The Simpsons as they can. The plot shifts into gear after Homer disposes his pet pig’s waste into the local, already overpolluted lake. The resulting environmental catastrophe spurs an EPA bureaucrat into taking Draconian measures against Springfield (read: annihilating the town) and the townspeople to grow hostile towards Homer. Eventually, Homer must embark on an odyssey — one he has taken, in form or another, umpteen times on the TV series — which leads him to take personal responsibility for his destructive buffoonery, and face off against the Capitol Hill enemy himself. The plot is suitably manic, cramming every type of gag into every last space of the screen, and as many as will fit into its 87 minute running time. Most of the humor here is smile-worthy, largely for how it references The Simpsons’ cultural universe, with seemingly throwaway asides that end up eliciting the biggest laughs. The funniest, sharpest moments in the The Simpsons Movie, indeed, may rank up there with the best over the latter half of its twenty-year rein (the first ten years are peerless).
There is enormous joy, not to be discounted, in seeing one of your favorite cartoons blown up for the big screen. The candy-bright colors, the crude-yet-fluid animation style — Groening’s cartoon revolution was the flip-off to the decades old Disney-driven tradition of realistic animation. And here it is in its big-screen glory, the animation as goofy and dippy as ever as Groening and company ply through the show’s standard themes: The ties between father and son as Bart, stung by Homer’s incompetent fathering, takes to the church-minded goody-goody Ned Flanders; between husband and wife as Marge, fed up with Homer’s environmentally insensitive antics, decides to part ways, leaving the loutish husband to endure a trial by fire — a typically hilarious nod to mysticism, personified by a buxom medicine woman — towards achieving the necessary epiphany; all while Lisa, ever politically conscientious, crushes on an Irish boy who’s not only cute, but as savvy as she is about cleaning up the environment. Millhouse continues to pine after Lisa, Ralph (Chief Wigam’s son) continues to bemuse with his dim-wittedness, and Mr. Burns glowers, as implacably as ever, ready to “release to hounds” on all trespassers. This is all territory we’ve traveled before, over umpteen seasons of the show, but it’s a testament to how much we love Groening’s creations that we’ll watch Homer and his clan jump the (same) hoops again. And though Homer himself chastises us, near the start of the movie, for paying for something we can watch on TV for free, I consider the money I put down my contribution to Groening’s good cause.
Directed by: David Silverman
Written by: James L. Brooks, Matt Groening, Al Jean, Ian Maxtone-Graham, George Meyer, David Mirkin, Mike Reiss, Mike Scully, Matt Selman, John Swartzwelder, Jon Vitti
Cast: Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright, Yeardley Smith, Harry Shearer, Hank Azaria, Marcia Wallace, Joe Mantegna, Albert Brooks, Tress MacNeille