by Jeff Meyers
After 18 years and 400 episodes (and an endless parade of merchandise tie-ins), the Simpson family makes its multiplex debut, forcing even walnut-brained Homer to acknowledge the screamingly obvious, "We're paying for something we can get on TV for free!"
Hence the big question: Can The Simpsons Movie, even with its enhanced animation, justify its own big-screen existence? The short answer: sort of. Given that the long-running cartoon can indulge in any plot its talented writers can imagine (and network standards allow), it's a daunting task to create something wholly original and cinematic. And though the short (86 minutes) and breezy film is predictably clever, occasionally brilliant and unfailingly entertaining it still feels very much like an elongated episode.
Which is the best way to sum up The Simpsons Movie; consider its three acts as separate episodes (though they all feed a single story). For its first half hour, we're in classic fourth or fifth season territory. There's a joke every few seconds (and several more in the background) as clever sight gags and hilarious asides zip from one marvelously funny set piece to the next. Slapstick violence, self-referential one-liners and bits about closet homosexuality, Hillary Clinton, Christian moralizing, senility and Fox TV come fast and furious. The sheer density of brash wit and irreverence is breathless to behold.
Once the second act plot mechanics kick in, however, the punch lines are fewer and farther between. Conflict and exposition slow things down and, though there are a few inspired moments especially Bart's skateboard ride through Springfield the movie loses the furious zing of its opening. Instead, each member of the family (except Maggie, of course) gets his or her own subplot, allowing their stories to weave together in ways the 22-minute television show could never achieve. The movie trades big laughs for greater emotional connection between its characters as Bart's quest for a more attentive father and Marge's doubts about her marriage produce some surprisingly moving moments. Hearing Homer admit, "I just try and make the day not hurt until I can crawl back into bed with you," is a line worthy of the sweetest romantic comedy.
When the final act of the film finally rolls around, The Simpsons Movie falls into a tug-of-war between standard-issue comedy and the need to neatly wrap things up. Valuable lessons are learned, setups cleverly pay off and Homer once again saves Springfield from a calamity only he could create. At its end, The Simpsons Movie feels very much like a Simpsons episode, even if Marge yells "Goddamn!" and Otto takes a hit off his bong.
You'd think a PG-13 rating would liberate the show's writers, allowing them to venture into risqué territory without fear of network censors. Truth is, The Simpson Movie indulges in the verboten exactly three times: The aforementioned drug reference and profanity at its finale and an earlier bit of nudity (which provides one the movie's biggest laughs).
This overly modest exploitation is what keeps The Simpsons Movie from truly rising to the occasion. It's not that it isn't funny, it's that it's funny in a familiar way; 18 years familiar. Most audience members are accustomed to the show's innovative tone and style and this, unfortunately, dulls its comedic edges. The movie squanders an opportunity to land some outrageous punches and, perhaps, push the venerable cartoon into new territory a la South Park: The Movie. Unlike Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who used the success of their filthy big screen debut to breathe profane (and musical) life into their weekly show, The Simpsons Movie is too timid and self-aware. Heck, even the opening Itchy and Scratchy cartoon has less bite than many primetime episodes. If that isn't call for a resounding chorus of "D'Oh" I don't know what is.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.