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The Simpsons Movie   B

20th Century Fox

Year Released: 2007
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: David Silverman
Writers: 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, Hank Azaria, Harry Shearer, Pamela Hayden, Tress MacNeille, Albert Brooks, Joe Mantegna, Marcia Wallace, Russi Taylor, Tom Hanks.

Review by Rob Vaux

"Nuts to that, I'm going to the movies."
--Homer J. Simpson

By now, everyone knows that The Simpsons Movie is essentially a 90-minute episode of the long-running TV show. The question is, which season of the show? Is it something from, say, Season Five, when it confirmed its status as the smartest thing on television week after unbelievably hysterical week? Or is it something from the last six years, when it had clearly jumped the shark and engaged in embarrassing attempts to escape the very creative bankruptcy it once mocked with such brilliance? The former would make this one of the best films of the year. The latter... well, best not to dwell upon such possibilities. Thankfully, series creator Matt Groening and director David Silverman have opted for the better yellow-skinned angels of their nature. Let's call the movie a ripe slice of Season Eight -- a bit past its prime, but still delivering some very funny class-clown iconoclasm.

Of course, everything about it is expected to be bigger than it was on television, and to certain extent, it is. Though retaining the charm of the original drawings, the animation is enhanced with digital backgrounds that actually feel closer to Groening's lesser-known series Futurama. It endeavors to push the envelope of propriety as well. The most telling example involves long-suffering matriarch Marge (voiced by Julie Kavner) using the word "goddamn," while more prominent evidence features various heretofore unseen portions of Simpson anatomy rendered in both flaccid and extended positions. Upon that canvas, Groening and an army of writers have intensified the show's irreverent spirit to epic proportions. So Homer's (Dan Castellanata) selfish idiocy has more dire ramifications here, the impish pranks of delinquent son Bart (Nancy Cartwright) have a more defiant tone, and so on. But at its heart, it remains the same kind of comedy from the same cast of characters -- granting it a strong sense of dependability though limiting how far it can explore on its own.

The plot essentially marries three or four episodes together in the service of a constant machine-gun assault of (largely inspired) gags. The basic centerpiece is Lake Springfield, the most polluted body of water in the country, which the dimwitted townsfolk insist on treating like a toxic waste dump. When some local citizen (one guess who) goes a step too far, the EPA seals Springfield in a giant Plexiglas dome, cutting them off from the world and engendering an apocalyptic societal collapse. The Simpsons are blamed, of course, and their efforts to first escape their angry neighbors (who, as any fan will tell you, form lynch mobs with disturbing ease) and then restore the town to comparative normalcy constitute the film's final two-thirds.

Silverman avoids the trap that the show itself has fallen into over the last few years by using character and personality as the basis for the humor, instead of compromising them for the sake of a cheap gimmick. Yet he also understands that he can't rely on the pacing of a half-hour show to fill the running time; the story here thus contains both a proper sense of progression and some actual personal growth from the Simpsons themselves. Bart, for example, starts to see annoyingly cheerful neighbor Ned Flanders (Harry Shearer) as a better father figure than Homer, while sister Lisa (Yeardley Smith) finally finds the boy of her dreams, and the inhumanly patient Marge discovers that even her loyalty has limits. I suspect that few of the changes they undergo will last beyond the closing credits -- to shift the family's dynamics so fundamentally would render their humor inert -- but here, it provides a solid structure that prevents the film from becoming just a series of punch lines.

Of course, there are still a lot of punch lines, most coming at us so quickly that a second viewing is required to catch them all. They range from sublime social commentary to plain old-fashioned pratfalls, united only by their unfailing ability to make us laugh. Many of them are recycled from the show, unfortunately, and though The Simpsons Movie does a better-than-average job of reinventing the specifics, longtime fans will easily recognize the spirit of rocket houses and space coyotes past lurking within its framework. But after 18 years, the fact that they can still find anything to say -- let alone enough to cover 86 -- speaks to how durable this property remains.

Still, the biggest question posed by The Simpsons Movie (one Homer himself asks us with his usual courtesy and tact in the film's opening moments) is why we should shell out ten bucks to watch what Fox gives us every Sunday for free. The answer lies in the increasingly fragile notion of a communal experience. Whether good or bad, the television show has always been a product of private viewing. We watch it with our family or a few friends on the couch, and share it with others only after the fact. But the movie theater makes for profoundly different circumstances -- surrounding us with large groups of people giggling at the same material we've always experienced alone. We see the same gags, the same characters, the same sly jabs at our human foibles, only now shared with an audience whose previous connection to us was, at best, secondhand. That changes the texture of what's onscreen, giving The Simpsons Movie a distinctive voice that saves it from simple regurgitation. Though battered and threadbare, the show remains the premiere satirical voice of our time. Putting it on the big screen might be just what it needed -- a boost of energy reminding us what made it so good and giving us hope that it might be that way again.

Review published 07.27.2007.

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