THE SIMPSONS MOVIE
Director: David Silverman
Cast: The voices of Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright, Yeardley Smith, Harry Shearer, Hank Azaria, Albert Brooks
MPAA Rating: (for irreverent humor throughout)
Running Time: 1:27
Release Date: 7/27/07
Review by Mark Dujsik
It's nice reuniting with old friends. "The Simpsons," television's longest running animated show, has been on for 18 seasons. I religiously watched for half of them; then the show, never seeming to be able regain the consistency of the first 6 or 7 seasons, lost me. The opening section of The Simpsons Movie, the long-awaited big-screen debut of America's most recognizable dysfunctional family (the bright yellow skin probably helps), is a fine reminder of why I loved the show so many years ago. It starts off a big-laugh-a-minute affair—visual gags, pop culture references, satirical jabs at big targets, meta-fictional self-parody abound. In other words, they save their "A" game. There is so much gusto, such a willingness to go for broke and not look back, that it seems too good to be true. As is often the case with such situations, it is. As much energy as the movie's first act of nonsensical, random humor has, The Simpsons Movie falls into the trap so many features transitioning from the small screen have: It thinks too big in the wrong places. A plot forms and grows out of hand, and the humor, so fast and furious in the first half hour, takes the passenger seat.
After a gem of an "Itchy & Scratchy" short (that's followed with observation, "I can't believe we're paying to see something we see on TV for free"), the town of Springfield is watching Green Day (the boys lend their voices) perform. The band thinks there's a problem with pollution in town, and only Lisa (voice of Yeardley Smith) agrees. Following a funeral, she begins a petition to clean up the lake. Meanwhile, Marge (voice of Julie Kavner) tries to interpret Grandpa Simpson's (voice of Dan Castellaneta) doomsday ramblings at the funeral, while Homer (Castellaneta again) and Bart (voice of Nancy Cartwright) start off doing household chores, which leads to a game of dare, which leads to Bart being arrested for indecent exposure. Bart's had it with Homer and starts to look to his religious neighbor Ned Flanders (voice of Harry Shearer) for a better father figure. Homer gets a pig ("Spider-Pig," for whom he writes a theme song, later done as a hilarious choral piece), and even after the town blocks off the polluted river with an idiot-proof barricade, dumps a silo of the hog's "leavings" in the lake, causing the EPA (headed by Albert Brooks' sneaky bureaucrat) to enclose the town in a dome.
Let us takes some time to do as the screenplay should have done and ignore the plot. When they come, the laughs are big. The 11 screenwriters (including the show's creator Matt Groening and executive producer James L. Brooks) don't shy away from upping the stakes on the gags, and regular series director David Silverman makes sure the timing is sharp. The opening act is so fast on the jokes, it's hard to keep up from laughing at the last one. Homer's total helplessness when it comes to anything pays off in spades while he's trying to do chores, and Bart's naked skateboarding trip through town has all kinds of phallic objects blocking the way. Actually, all these jokes are obvious, come to think of it, but they're staged so well and with such reckless abandon, it's natural to forget that fact. Take the naked skateboarding. There's been a highly publicized rumor going around about Bart's full-frontal moment, and it's there. What makes the joke work is that even though it's expected it, it's still almost easy to miss. Political stuff's here, too, like when Lisa uses a scissor-lift to show how bad the pollution in the lake will get, a la An Inconvenient Truth, but by the end, the townsfolk are really only convinced they need a new lift. Oh, and Arnold Schwarzenegger is the President ("I was elected to lead not to read.").
Then there's the troublesome plot. Springfield's in trouble. The Simpson clan is exiled. They leave their home to go to Alaska. Family conflicts arise. Why do these television adaptations always feel the need to go all gloom and doom when it comes to the story? Here, the movie loses considerable steam. It takes the characters out of their natural environment and never finds anything worthwhile for them to do. Bart begins to actively disown Homer, and Marge starts down the path to leaving the big, dumb, lovable lummox for good. The entire town is ready to be destroyed (the side characters—such an important part to the show's ability to stay fresh—remain on the side), while Homer goes on a hallucinatory trip of self-awareness (which was done better on the show when Johnny Cash voiced his spirit guide). The movie gets too plot-heavy and only on one occasion finds the guile to plant its tongue in its cheek about it ("To be continued… Immediately"). Even the climax involves a digital readout on a bomb. It's hard to fathom that this is the same movie that only an hour or so beforehand interrupts a plot moment with an ad scroll for a game show on the Fox network popping up at the bottom of the screen.
For what it's worth, I did laugh. A lot. And hard. The first half hour is pure comic gold, but the rest is weighed down by the movie's unfortunate, misguided big-screen aspirations. The Simpsons Movie is a valiant first try, and if baby Maggie's first word during the credits comes to pass, let's hope the second attempt embraces the ironic tone of the first act here.
Note: I'm aware that Maggie has spoken before, but the family hears her this time. And the voice isn't Elizabeth Taylor or James Earl Jones. The movie does have a great cameo by Tom Hanks, but he's not Maggie either.
Copyright © 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.