It’s a grand thing to see “The Simpsons” on the big screen, isn’t it? Everyone knows the 18-year-old show show isn’t as funny as it used to be, but those of us who still watch it can testify that about every fourth episode is as brilliant as ever.
“The Simpsons Movie” is almost exactly the length of four 22-minute episodes, and sure enough, about one-fourth of it is brilliant. Like most of the TV episodes, the funniest parts are in the first act — the loopy parodies and freewheeling tangents that dominate before the real plot is introduced. Once the story kicks in, the film has its moments but isn’t quite as breathlessly funny as it was in the beginning.
And yet, it’s still the funniest movie I’ve seen this year that wasn’t rated R. It has the same anarchic spirit of the TV series, the lightning-fast sight gags, the clever self-awareness, and the amazing ability to satirize modern American life without being cruel. “The Simpsons” can make fun of something you love and you’ll still say, “Thank you. May I have another?”
The story comes from the Homer Screws Up and Marge Almost Leaves Him drawer in the big “Simpsons” filing cabinet of plot devices. This time, Homer (voice of Dan Castellaneta) is 1) doing chores around the house, which leads to him 2) getting a pet pig, which naturally leads to 3) the destruction of Lake Springfield, which can only result in 4) the Environmental Protection Agency sealing Springfield inside a protective dome to keep it from infecting the rest of the country. And if those numbered events don’t sound like they could really cause the next numbered events to occur, then you must not have watched much of “The Simpsons.”
With the entire town furious with Homer, he takes the family and flees. They escape to Alaska, where Marge (Julie Kavner) wonders if she has finally been pushed too far by Homer’s cluelessness. Ultimately she decides she must try to save Springfield, and she takes Bart (Nancy Cartwright), Lisa (Yeardley Smith), and baby Maggie with her, leaving Homer to contemplate his fate until an epiphany inspires him to action.
This is, you’ll notice, fairly typical Simpsons fare, and it’s certainly nothing that couldn’t have been done on TV. They take advantage of the freedom of the big screen only by indulging in a tiny bit of swearing, letting Homer flip the bird (which is completely in character, when you think about it), and showing full frontal cartoon nudity — of Bart. I’d heard it was coming, and I still wasn’t prepared for how funny it was when it happened.
The film eventually gets bogged down in the requirements of the plot, though it never becomes boring or tiresome. In fact, the 87 minutes whizz by at a rather impressive pace. The widescreen animation (computer-enhanced to a greater degree than on TV) is smooth and colorful, and the voice work is stellar as always.
My only major complaint is that, with all the extra time available, you’d think they’d give the non-Simpson characters more opportunities to shine. One of the show’s greatest accomplishments is populating the town with dozens and dozens of instantly recognizable characters who can always be counted on to show up, deliver a one-liner, and leave. The increased running time of a movie is a perfect opportunity for that, and yet quite a few Springfielders get a raw deal. Principal Skinner and his mother, Marge’s ghoulish sisters, Grandpa’s aged friend Jasper, the squeaky-voiced teen, ol’ Gil the salesman — they’re all either not present at all, or glimpsed only briefly. Even our beloved Burns and Smithers really only get one scene. Sigh.
But do not allow my nerdy complaints to dampen your enthusiasm! “The Simpsons Movie” has the same qualities and flaws as “The Simpsons” TV show. Which is to say, it’s not perfect, but you’ll be laughing too hard to notice.
B+ (1 hr., 27 min.; )