Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Film Review - THE SIMPSONS MOVIE: A Franchise Savior or Much Apu About Nothing?

A lot of intense questions hung over the head of 20th Century Fox's The Simpsons Movie. Would the film restore the glory of the franchise after multiple years of lousy output? Would the translation from TV to film work? Would the returning vintage-era writers (Creator Matt Groening, producer James L. Brooks and 9 more!) mine comic gold once again, delivering something that would have us in the gales of laughter that the entire season 5 did? Would Lenny and Carl finally have their big show-stopping love scene? Well, the answers are simple now: A no, a mild yes, a no... And a (regretful) no again. But let's get to the real nitty gritty here and dissect this sucker like Larry Drake in Dr. Giggles!

But first, lemme run through the story (This really won't take long. Thank God.). The film opens like most episodes do, with a seemingly random event. In this case, the Simpson family attends church, where Grandpa becomes a conduit for a message from God. The warning is garbled at best and mostly ignored by the blissfully ignorant townsfolk. Following this, Homer and Bart have a daring contest that ends with Bart handcuffed naked to a telephone pole, and Homer adopting a hilariously drawn pig. Bart, feeling unloved and questioning Homer's fatherly abilities, begins to ponder finding a more stable paternal figure in neighbor Flanders. All this is interrupted when Homer dumps a large amount of pig dung in recent environmental protection recipient Lake Springfield, thus causing massive pollution in Springfield. Meanwhile, opportunistic (and nefarious) EPA head Russ Cargill (Voiced by Albert Brooks) has Springfield enclosed in a massive dome to prevent the pollution from affecting the rest of the country. Following threats of mob violence from the town, the Simpson family escapes the dome and heads to Alaska, where they learn lessons and must decide whether to return to Springfield to set matters right and thwart Cargill's grim plans.
Hmm. That wasn't as brief as I expected. Well, live and learn.

Anyways, I covered my opinions on the current state of the show in a previous entry (Storm the archives for that stuff.), so I'm not gonna go into too much depth regarding that whole ball of wax. Rather, I'm simply going to state that The Simpson's Movie is a fairly grand improvement on anything featured in the last 7 or so years. But, with that said, it also suffers badly in comparison to every episode within the first decade (Except that wretched Coyote/Hallucination episode - Detailed in my previous entry.). Instead, the film falls squarely in the middle, never really daring to be anything other than an amusing diversion. And with a pedigree like this, that is a bit of a disappointment.

I laughed in The Simpsons Movie. A fair deal, in fact. The first half hour is a wonderful series of random "Simpson-esque" moments that lead from chortle to chuckle. Bart's naked skateboard odyssey across Springfield is a hilarious run with a shockingly funny capper. Individual moments with Ralph, Moe, Krusty, etc get laughs simply through familiarity. Unfortunately, however, once the storyline kicks in the laughs begin to fade. The doming of Springfield, leading into the Alaska material feels like the sorts of stunts that the show went crazy over once flagging inspiration began to kick in. The Simpsons in Brazil, London, Canada, Japan, and so on, times fifty. The Alaska stuff is cute, but has very little effect on the story at large. It's throwaway stuff that unforgivably takes us away from the rich supporting cast that has been the real strength behind the franchise. Instead we get Homer screwing over the family and having to learn a lesson. Virgin territory, I proclaim thee! Oh, and just for fun, we get another horrific existential scene that is a complete rip-off of that God forsaken coyote episode. Needless to say, annoyed disbelief led to simmering rage. In fairness, I will mention that the closing scenes are entertaining, although the action scenes are more perfunctory than necessary... And not overly enthralling.

So, what makes this film (slightly) worth your ten bucks? Well, the jokes are constant, with most getting great reactions from the audience. The voice acting by series regulars Dan Castellaneta (Homer, Grandpa, Krusty, et al.), Julie Kavner (Marge), Nancy Cartwright (Bart), Yeardly Smith (Lisa), Hank Azaria (Apu, Wiggum, Moe), Harry Shearer (Mr. Burns, Smithers, Skinner and many more) and company are dead-on and never falter (Although I suppose they've had almost 2 decades worth of practice by now...). Albert Brooks, one of the most frequent guest stars on the show, has some great scenes here too. As I said in my Pirates 3 review, familiarity goes a long way, and there's something comforting about spending a couple hours with this family in a cool theatre. Director David Silverman has served up a nice looking movie, with plenty of groovy CG moments that give the whole thing a little more depth and richness.

But the film still does feel a bit small when compared with previous attempts at TV-to-movie translations. Both South Park and Beavis & Butt-Head (Neither of whose shows came close to comparing to vintage Simpsons episodes!) did so much more with the form. They both, South Park in particular, dared themselves to aim higher than they ever could on television. They weren't content to simply toss off a extra-length episode. The creative minds behind The Simpsons Movie were, it seems, and so we can be forgiven for feeling underwhelmed when the curtains close. The experience reminded me of seeing Jetsons: The Movie back in 1990. The material is the same, only longer and with a few bells and whistles (Though The Simpsons is infinitely funnier).

Whether or not you are disappointed with this film will really depend on your view of the franchise's strengths and weaknesses. I missed the more obscure and witty film references that were hallmarks of the best episodes. Their targets here, Titanic, Independence Day and Night Of The Living Dead among them, felt too safe and generic. The post-modern material on the other hand, with jokes about the Fox network and the film's very existence, is strong and could have been further emphasized. As well, I can't argue enough over the exclusion of the supporting cast. Further use of them would have benefitted the film hugely. I could happily done without the overabundance of "homages" to classic episodes, as they felt more like desperate attempts to get laughs from proven material (Like in Bean!).

The film ends with the hint of a sequel. Let's hope next time we get something a little more courageous and unsafe. And let's dispense with junky titles like this one and find something cleverer. Bonus points if they call it "The Simpsons: Curious (Yellow)"

3 out of 5