A film review by Craig J. Koban

THE SIMPSONS MOVIE jjj
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2007, PG-13, 85 mins.

With the voices of:
Homer/Krusty the Clown/Itchy: Dan Castellaneta / Marge: Julie Kavner
Bart: Nancy Cartwright / Lisa: Yeardley Smith / Moe/Apu: Hank Azaria / Mr. Burns/Scratchy: Harry Shearer / Sideshow Bob: Kelsey Grammer / Fat Tony: Joe Mantegna

Directed by David Silverman / Written by Matt Groening, JamesL. Brooks, Al Jean, Ian Maxtone-Graham. George Meyer, David Mirkin, Mike Reiss, Mike Scully, Matt Selman, John Swartzwelder and Jon Vitti

"Why pay for something that you can see at home for free?"

- Homer Simpson in THE SIMPSONS MOVIE

 

There is a very small moment in the long-awaited SIMPSONS MOVIE which reveals why the TV show that predicated it was such a subversive and irreverent laugh-fest.

 

Being the overwhelmingly incompetent and irresponsible father that he is, Homer Simpson dares his young son, Bart, to skateboard through their hometown of Springfield...butt-naked.  Bart lovingly and daringly obliges.  When he skates by the perpetually naive and adorably dim-witted tyke, Ralph Wiggum, the youngster stares at Bart in his B-day suit as he flies by, thinks for a second, and then matter-of-factly states, "I like men now."

The original TV show - which has lasted an unprecedented 18 seasons; the longest sitcom in the history of the medium, spanning 400 episodes - has innumerable moments just like the one mentioned.  Ever since its inception as a series of crudely animated satiric shorts for The Tracy Ullman Shown on April 19, 1987, the fictional Springfieldian family has spawned a pop culture phenomenon.  After lasting three years as filler material for the Ullman show, the characters became so popular that they made the transition into their own half-hour sitcom on the Fox network.  This year marks the franchiseís 20th anniversary and the show just has been renewed for an astounding 19th season.  You just don't that kind of longevity without doing something right.

Itís easy to overlook the staggering influence of the show and its prevailing strengths over its long-standing TV run.  Surely, its last few seasons do not hold up to a 1999 Time Magazine labeling of it as the "Best TV Series of the Century", but much of the series can take an easy claim to that accolade.  Sure, the freshness of the franchise is dwindling, as is its tenacious comic edge and sense of nail-biting satire, but what THE SIMPSONS MOVIE does is remind one of how truly inspired and hilarious the best episodes of the series were.  Not only that, but after watching the film one should be required to sit down and ponder the enormous impact that sitcom has had on modern culture.  Much of the showís catch phrases are now a part of normal, everyday vernacular.  Homerís annoyed and disparaging grunt of "Díoh" and Monty Burns' chilling usage of the word "Exxxxceellent" are so ubiquitous that the former is now a part of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Surely, for a simple TV show to achieve such notoriety is a most rare thing, indeed.

I guess that anticipation for a SIMPSONS movie has approached PHANTOM MENACE-sized proportions over the years.  Surely, the grave concern with the legions - and I mean legions - of its die hard fans is that a film coming so late in existence of the franchise would be ripe to disappoint.  It certainly is a rather odd move for creators Matt Groening and company to release a big-budget feature film of his creation so late in the game (to their credit, though, the idea of a SIMPSONS movie has been germinating for nearly a decade).  Yet, I am willing to concede by understanding that the makers of the show wanted to make this SIMPSONS film the film that exasperated fans have been waiting for.  The pressure to make this feature length version a work that would do justice to "The Best TV Show of the Century" must have been irreproachable daunting.

The film - directed by SIMPSONS alumni David Silverman, produced by James L. Brooks, Groening, Al Jean, Mike Scully, and Richard Sakai, and written by no less than 11 of the seriesí best writers - should not cause fans to lose any sleep over its relative worth.  What it does - and does so with an extraordinary efficiency and consistency - is match the best TV episodes in terms of providing cutting edge satire, clever and ruthlessly sly capriciousness, and - most crucially - a rapid fire number of riotous laughs and a bewildering number of sight gags and pratfalls.  THE SIMPSONS MOVIE certainly benefits from its higher production budget and scope (itís overall look is more polished and itís produced in a long, Panavision wide-screen format, allowing for the visuals to have a lot of breathing room), but some its more lavish aesthetic flourishes donít overwhelm the fact that - like its TV counterpart - it is filled to rim with amusement and side-splittingly hilarious merriment.

If the last few years of SIMPSONS TV episodes have left viewers yearning for more, then the MOVIE will certainly wet and satisfy those appetites.  What has always been striking about the TV show is how much actual comedy the creators cram into each one of those 400, 20 minute-plus episodes.  What the writers have done with the movie is to stay rigidly faithful to the seriesí remarkably consistent laughs-to-running-time ratio. 

THE SIMPSONS MOVIE just may contain the most laughs per minute of any modern comedy Iíve seen.  Certainly, there are several moments of the film where the scenes inspire a bit more groans that hearty hilarity (a would-be funny sub-plot that involves President "Schwarzenegger" is not as funny as it could have been), but the film at least makes an effort to throw endless amounts of jokes - one right after the other - at the viewer in hopes of never letting them get restless.  It is to the filmís ultimate credit that it completely goes for broke by attempting for non-stop gleefulness.  Not all of the humor works successful, but there is no denying the filmís astonishing consistency with bludgeoning us with hilarity.  There is rarely one minute of the film that goes by that doesn't inspire, at the very least, a chuckle.  If anything, THE SIMPSONS MOVIE is kind of a pleasantly exhaustive 85 minutes; you become fatigued just from laughing too hard and for too long.

The film is an unstoppable giddy ride right from the opening sequence, which features a movie within the movie staring everyoneís favourite despicably violent cat and mouse team, Itchy and Scratchy.  Itís slowly revealed that the Simpsons are watching the duo's new film, which in turn is based on a short TV show.  At one point Homer (voiced by Dan Castellaneta) stands up and pitifully asks why anyone would ever waste money to see a TV show on the big screen.

The self-referential comedy and subversive satire donít end there.  There is a brilliantly conceived bit that shameless plugs the Fox Network (home of the TV Simpsons) that would make Monty Python proud.  Then there is a wickedly sly bit with Lisa Simpson (Yeardley Smith) as she canvasses, door-to-door, on an Al Gore-fuelled-frenzy to save the planet (the sight gag with the last house she visits is one of the filmís best).  She further has a moment after that while she gives a lecture to the people of Springfield that looks a lot like Al Goreís in AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH.  In that film he had to use a hydraulic lift to hoist himself to the point on the big screen chart that showed where earth temperatures are heading in the future.  In Poor little Lisaís instance, the lift breaks down.  D'oh!

I guess if there was a place where the satire is a bit soft-pedaled then it would be in taking jabs at religion, the President, and the environment, all of which are not necessarily cutting edge.  Ultimately, the meagerness of some of the filmís satire is not cause for alarm, because the great jokes that occur so frequently and ferociously make one laugh so much that you kind of forget about the filmís lack of genuine inspiration from a story or themes standpoint. 

The film is also quite appropriately rated PG-13, most likely because a couple of foul words and a middle finger gesture by one character in a very funny scene. Perhaps it was Bartís (Nancy Cartwright) naked skateboarding stunt that shunned the MPAA.  This might be the first film in history that has very brief, full frontal male nudity involving a child to receive a PG-13.  As we get a lightning fast glimpse of Bartís privates, you initially want to ponder whether or not a cartoon kid exposed constitutes child pornography, but one is so busy laughing at the filmís spirit - not to mention the laughably simplistic rendering of Bartís genitalia - that you are able to quickly discard such ridiculous thinking.

The filmís story - and I will try to appreciate the filmmakersí insistence to not give too much away - revolves around proving, once again, the monumental stupidity of Homer.  It seems that he has taken a liking to his new pet pig.  Unfortunately, his little piggie likes to poo-poo a lot.  After attempting to hide the excrement in a rather large receptacle, he is forced by his wife Marge (Julie Kavner) to get rid of it.  Instead of finding a tactful and appropriate manner of disposing of the material, he abruptly dumps it all in the nearby lake. Why?  A local eatery is selling off their donut supply, and he wants to get there quick before the product is all bought out.  Hmmmmmm....liquidation pastries.

Needless to say, Homer dumps the crap in the lake, which single-handedly destroys the cityís ecosystem (multiple eyed creatures amusingly emerge from the new petrified lake).  Unfortunately, the US President has been coerced by his unscrupulous and evil EPA aid (voiced by "A. Brooks"; or Albert Brooks) to quarantine the town.  Well, he at least gives President Schwarzenegger five "unthinkable options", but Ah-nauld points his finger at the first one he comes across, stating that he was hired to "lead", not to "read".  Within no time, the government has placed an immeasurably large dome over the entire town.  The entire population is reduced to a post-apocalyptic gang of revengers that soon discover that it was Homerís negligence that caused the entire epidemic.  Realizing that he is a dead man, Homer takes his family away from Springfield and hopes to gather up what wits he has to both save the town he loves and his place in it.

Again, itís not the story that is the filmís prevailing key asset, but the filmís stunning array of consistent jokes.  While spending a lot of time taking strong smacks at contemporary family values and modern advertising, THE SIMPSONS MOVIE is as vital and strong as ever with its overall spirit and tone.  The old shows themselves walked an interesting balancing act between being offensive and sublime.  Itís cheerfulness and warmheartedness often was balanced off by its dark and acerbic laughs. 

Thatís the key to THE SIMPSONS TV show and itís in abundance in the film.  For every cackle thatís missed, a new one comes blazing by to make up for it, alongside some fairly tender moments between characters.  A film like this is so stuffed; it has moments of poignancy where a teary-eyed Marge chastises her husband alongside moments where Homer wonders whether or not he should kiss a pig on the lips to overcome his curiosity about it.  Oh, the film also manages to have a celebrity cameo (a staple of the TV show) by none other than Tom Hanks, who has one of the filmís best dead-panned lines: "Hello, Iím Tom Hanks.  Should you see me in person, then...please...leave me be."  The fact that 11 writers wrote over 100 drafts of this comedy shows.  Theyíve left nothing to chance.

Those that are concerned that the filmís new look on the big screen will also be sacrilegious to its TV show origins neednít worry either.  If anything, THE SIMPSONS MOVIE is rigidly faithful to the remarkably simplistic animated style of the sitcom; only slight cosmetic upgrades have been made.  Characters are given a bit more depth and shading, and the panoramic vistas of the wide-screen format add considerably to the density of the whole enterprise.  The film retains the seriesí carefree and minimalist style, which I think is crucial to allow for the comedy to come through.  More complex renderings of characters and locations would be distracting.

However marginal the aesthetic style of The Simpsons is, it nevertheless has essentially dictated years of subsequent copy-cat impersonators.  Shows like THE FAMILY GUY and AMERICAN DAD have an almost plagiaristic look when compared to The Simpsons.  Thankfully, THE SIMPSONS MOVIE adheres to Matt Groening's staunch willingness to have - as he has often stated - a "deliberately imperfect" look.  Lame and large scale CGI upgrades would have destroyed the film's overall effect.  If there was ever an animated film that required a two-dimensional look and feel, then itís this.

THE SIMPSONS MOVIE is cagey, crafty, and hilarious enough to appease not only the devoted fans of everyoneís favourite yellow-skinned family, but also the agnostic viewer as well.  Stern familiarity with the TV show is in no means mandatory here, which is kind of amazing considering the showís 19-year-plus legacy on the small screen.  The film may take shots at some very easy political subjects and could have went a more challenging route with its satire, but the film nonetheless retains the seriesí cutting edge smartness, sophistication, and irresponsibility.  It represents a brilliant chasm between the new and old; a big-budget film that works marvelously on its own accord that fondly initiates memories of the very best the TV show had to offer.  Perhaps most importantly, THE SIMPSONS MOVIE has more gigantic laughs than any other film this year and is an undeniable hoot to sit through as a result.

Whoo-hoo!

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