The Simpsons Movie
Directed by David Silverman
Written by James L. Brooks, Matt Groening, Al Jean, Ian Maxtone-Graham, George Meyer, David Mirkin, Mike Reiss, Mike Scullly, Matt Selman, John Swartzwelder and Jon Vitt
Featuring the voices of Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kravner, Nancy Cartwright, Yeardley Smith, Hank Azaria and Harry Shearer
D'oh-dum. Ambivalence is not usually a response to anything related to The Simpsons, the 18-season-long, 400-episode television show that, in 1999, Time Magazine declared "the television show of the 20th Century." (A bit stingy; given the lack of competition from previous centuries, the "best TV show ever" would have worked.) Matt Groening's stories of an American family has become a cultural lodestar, a rare example of witty, subversive, refreshingly intelligent, mass-culture art. For its first four or five years on the air, the writing was often brilliant, and the long, occasionally mediocre stretches since then have been better than 90 per cent of what's on television.
So, now comes The Simpsons Movie, an event that, no doubt, will be celebrated by the millions of fans of the show simply because it finally exists. Since The Simpsons Movie first began gestation six years ago, the script was reportedly rewritten more than 100 times by a team of 11 writers, who, possibly, tried too hard.
At best, the experience is like watching four back-to-back less-than-vintage Simpsons episodes. It's often clever and silly, but rarely inspired and there is nothing remotely necessary about it. If you were to introduce someone to the genius of The Simpsons on the basis of this movie alone, he or she would think you deluded. On the positive side, it's still four back-to-back Simpsons episodes, which is still better than most of what either television or the movies have to offer.
The best part is the movie's 30-minute introductory sequence, or Episode One, the opening 20 minutes worth of rapid-fire jokes that in a series of short clips promises a bright, punchline-drunk time, while setting up the larger environmental disaster plot. We start with the Simpson family watching an Itchy and Scratchy movie in the theatre with Homer (Don Castellaneta) complaining, "I can't believe we're paying for something we get for free on TV."
Cut to Green Day playing The Simpsons theme on a barge, trying to preach an anti-pollution message. Then, at a funeral, Grandpa Simpson (Castellaneta) begins to ramble incoherently about an upcoming disaster and soon Lisa (Yeardley Smith) is going door-to-door to convince people to clean up the town lake when she meets a dreamboat Irish musician-activist named Colin (Mike Dirnt). We move on to the now already-famous set piece of a naked skate-boarding Bart (Nancy Cartwright) showing his noodle, and Homer's acquisition of yet-another inappropriate pet, a pig who produces enough manure to create an environmental disaster.
Then, Episode 2, which begins to stumble into a thicket of plot. Over to Washington, where the power-mad head of the Environmental Protection Agency (Albert Brooks) convinces President Arnold Schwarzenegger (Harry Shearer) to seal the polluted Springfield under an unbreakable dome. The citizens of Springfield turn on each other, and especially the cause of their imprisonment, Homer Simpson. The movie manages to include almost every recurring character from the history of the series, but ultimately Homer's dumbness - the engine of the most obvious episodes - remains the focus here. On to the weakest section, episode three, in which the Simpson family is taken out of its natural urban environment into the tedium of nature in rural Alaska. Bart has become estranged from his father, preferring the unctuous pleasantries of Ned Flanders (Shearer) to Homer's inveterate stupidity. Marge (Julie Kravner), once again, puts her foot down and decides she cannot tolerate Homer's selfishness.
Otherwise, Alaska offers little for the family to do (one half-hearted polar bear encounter) and soon, Marge and the children leave Homer, in an attempt to thwart the latest EPA plot against Springfield. Narrative desperation begins to show when Homer finds an Inuit spiritual guide, who he calls Boob Lady, who helps lead him back to his family. The last act, back in the dome with the full cast of Springfield restored, is a welcome return to busy, noisy life.
Many of these elements are familiar. A number of inappropriate pets have entered the Simpson household. Springfield has previously been threatened with destruction (by an asteroid in Bart's Comet, Season 6), bringing out the worst and best in its population. Homer has previously had a spiritual mentor (Johnny Cash, as Coyote, in Season Eight). All these elements emphasize how much The Simpsons Movie aims to be a recapitulation of proven successes instead of breaking new creative ground. After the big-screen success of a rival animated series, 1999's South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, this safe strategy seems needlessly gutless.
Television comedy writing typically surpasses that of the movies and for years The Simpsons staff has been the cream of the form. There's a undeniably high level of craft here, especially from the peerless voice cast, and there are moments of inspiration - including a smart cameo from Tom Hanks, oddball visual references - that from lesser talents might look like gems. But this isn't supposed to be a typical contemporary family movie, in which the narrative serves as the centre of a cross-promotional campaign with TV, theme park, fast food and toy corporations. This is The Simpsons which, with its first big-screen effort, is underachieving and proud of it, man.