When TV Goes Hollywood

Can an empire like 'Simpsons' really keep the magic?

By Steve Burgess 27 Jul 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess reviews films for The Tyee every second Friday.

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A 20 year ride.

Will Ferrell as Homer; Meryl Streep as Marge; Dakota Fanning as Lisa; Billy Bob Thornton as Mr. Burns and, in a slam-dunk casting, William H. Macy as Smithers.

How best to pass the minutes waiting for the beginning of the animated The Simpsons Movie? Casting a hypothetical live-action Simpsons flick and searching for floor popcorn are equally fine options. It has been a long wait -- 20 years since the family's first TV appearances, 18 seasons since the epic cartoon debuted. Creator Matt Groening has been asked repeatedly why it took so long to bring his dysfunctional yellow family to the big screen, and says he has no real answer. Here's one: maybe they were waiting for expectations to drop. Recent Simpsons seasons have certainly accomplished that. The best comedy in TV history stopped being must-watch a long time ago -- after Futurama arrived it wasn't even the best Matt Groening creation on TV.

But in its prime there was nothing better. The challenge of The Simpsons Movie is to recapture that magic. Do they? I'd say no. But the movie is still pretty funny. With a show as great as The Simpsons, you can miss the bull's eye and still come up with something well worth seeing.

Insider trading

Precious few audience members will be coming to this movie with no context. While that puts a burden of expectations on the filmmakers, it also allows plenty of leeway for in-jokes and obviates the need for set-up time. Straight to the gags and cameo character appearances -- Ralph Wiggum shows up even before the Itchy & Scratchy cartoon starts. An Itchy & Scratchy movie, actually -- we're in the big time now.

The first third of The Simpsons Movie is the best, with great gags -- including an inspired sequence involving Bart's privates -- and the "Spider Pig" song, a little Homer ditty that will probably be the movie's top take-away moment. There's also lots of fun playing spot-the-minor-character. One-Armed Willy appears (wordlessly) in one scene, and the alien Kang is listed in the credits, although I didn't see him. (Stay to the absolute bitter end if you crave an appearance by Squeaky-Voiced Teen.) Among the contractual mysteries sure to inspire chat-room discussion: Why several appearances by Sideshow Mel, and none by Sideshow Bob?

The problems start when the plot kicks in. Every movie not named Jackass needs one, but The Simpsons Movie takes the requirement too seriously. It involves an environmental disaster -- Homer-caused, of course -- and the famous family on the lam. You'll find the theatre getting a lot quieter as the gags are gradually replaced by plot mechanics. And sentiment. Lots of sentiment, like extra mocha syrup in Ned Flanders' award-winning hot chocolate.

A sentiment problem

Even in its finest seasons The Simpsons struggled with a sentiment problem. The best episodes eschewed it, skewered it, expelled it mercilessly. Other episodes ended sloppily and made you wonder if the A-team of scriptwriters was on holiday. Too often, The Simpsons Movie is reminiscent of those latter episodes.

When The Simpsons first arrived it was incomparable. The movie is not so lucky. While Groening and co. dawdled two decades on the way to the theatre, another anarchic, groundbreaking cartoon moved faster. Now, The Simpsons Movie must measure up to the epic South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut. It doesn't. While the South Park series will never achieve the television status of The Simpsons, on the big screen the roles are reversed. South Park's movie went for the balls with cutting, slashing, comedy. The Simpsons Movie, by comparison, is a decidedly tame beast.

Still funny, though. Krusty the Klown disposing of his flop sweat, Ned Flanders' critique of his son's hair, the Mexican Bee encountering "Un burro amoroso!" -- there's plenty of great stuff here. But as you watch the parade of familiar characters you may well find your mind drifting to more brilliant antics and more inspired episodes that featured them. The biggest problem with The Simpsons Movie is The Simpsons' history.

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