Monday, July 30, 2007

REVIEW: The Simpsons Movie

I don't like the "The" before "Simpsons Movie" in the title. It feels like it's trying invest the proceedings with a level of import or portent that it neither requires nor should even have in the first place... as though the film marks some kind of definative evolution of the franchise - "it's not just 'a' Simpsons movie, it's THE Simpsons movie!" And at this point, it wouldn't only be a mistake to try and make "THE Simpsons movie," it'd be a bad idea and probably impossible.

There's not a tremendous amount of precedent for TV shows, especially animated TV shows, getting the feature-film treatment while the original show is still airing; but the ones that are remembered stand out for a reason. "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut," to use the best example, came along at the initial zenith of the series' introduction to the pop-culture mainstream and was able to act as a "coming out party" for the creators' potential genius: "Oh my God... THIS is what these characters and their world are capable of being!!??"

What MUST be realized is that "The Simpsons," 18 full seasons old and counting at the time of IT'S movie release, can't and really oughtn't be aiming for that level. Now the longest-running and possibly greatest sitcom ever created, "The Simpsons" has ALREADY stretched it's wings and shown it's full range of capabilities hundreds of times over - it has nothing to "prove." Having gone from subversive to celebrated to INSTITUTION, Matt Groening's yellow-skinned creations have already shown their chops for all manner of comedy, plus genuine drama and multiple levels of fantasy. Want to see the Simpson family head off on a flight of fancy? You get it once a year in the Halloween episodes. Looking for an epic citizens-of-Springfield ensemble yarn? Hello, "Who Shot Mr. Burns?" In other words, don't go looking for the movie to take "The Simpsons" to the next level... there IS no next level. "The Simpsons" already beat the game.

And so, the movie wisely heads in the opposite direction. You'll find no huge make-or-break experiment or day-of-a-thousand-inside-jokes fan-wank here. Instead, what's offered is a "typical" classic-formula "Simpsons" adventure, one that easily could've been an episode of the series (for fans: It has the overall air of a "Season 1" story with a "Seasons 3-5" aesthetic) but with a specific set of occurances JUST large-scale enough to require an extra hour of running time. In shorthand: Homer and his new pet pig innadvertently cause an evironmental disaster, (the effects of which ought to put a smile on longtime-fans faces) leading an overzealous EPA leader (Albert Brooks) to trap the residents of Springfield in a giant glass dome to "protect" the rest of the country. While Homer tries to escape his responsibility, the family finds themselves less inclined to continue supporting his cluelessness - and Bart has even started to envy the parenting of neighbor Ned Flanders. The animation is just a bit more detailed and sharper, the language is just a bit rougher, a few gags just a bit more risque, the dramatic stakes just a bit higher... but when all is said and done it's unmistakably and unashamedly a Simpsons story.

Which makes it hard to review, when all is said and done, other than to say that it's funny as hell and you should go see it. There's really no way to discuss "how" it's funny, and even quietly brilliant, without giving away the jokes. For what it's worth, I AM glad to see how "retro" it is in it's choice of show-eras to encapsulate - overlooking the "yeah, even WE know we've been on forever at this point" winking of the recent seasons in favor of the foundations: Springfield as an eco-catastrophe waiting to happen, Homer as a dolt, Bart as troublemaking brat, Lisa as brainy knowitall and Marge as the put-upon glue holding it all (barely) together. But fans of winks and nudges and in-jokes don't worry, you've got plenty to look forward to as well: Including a tremendous bit of business with Martin Prince and one of the most instantly-quotable Ralph Wiggum lines of all time. And yes, the trailers are correct to dwell on it: "Spider-Pig" rules.

So, then, it's funny as hell and you should go see it. Quickly, so that we can all get about the business of memorizing the gags and quoting them back and forth to one another. It is, after all, "The Simpsons."