I have started, erased and re-started this review about seven or eight times now. Some drafts started grandly, talking about the importance of “The Simpsons” in pop culture and society in general. Some started more personally, detailing what a grade-A “Simpsons” nerd I am or talking about the fact that this is my first official movie review. Others talked about what it was like to catch the flick at a midnight show with some wonderfully drunk youngins and diehard nerd-fans (including a dude in full-dress as the Crazy Cat Lady, complete with an army of stuffed cats). There were so many angles to take but, ultimately, none of them seemed right because they all ignored the elephant in the room (Stampy?), the question that everyone really wants to know: Can a movie that’s been talked about for so long, and which has so many diehard fans as its core audience, possibly live up to the expectations?
And check out this pleasant surprise — the movie will most likely meet or exceed your expectations, depending on where exactly you’re coming from. And what I mean by that is that there are probably four camps of relevant people here: (i) there’s the majority of my generation, who are of the belief that the show was fantastic-genius until somewhere between Seasons Seven and Nine, at which point it all went to shit, never to return; (ii) there are those who think that “The Simpsons” can do no wrong, and that it’s always been funny; (iii) there are those in the middle, who think the show took a quality dip for a while but has since come back at least somewhat; and (iv) there are those who have just never been into “The Simpsons” and are relatively indifferent to it (I’m choosing to ignore an arguable fifth camp of folks who hate the show and/or are offended by it because, frankly, they’re already dead to me). Now, for the record, I am in the third camp — the recent seasons surely pale in comparison to the show’s golden era, but the last couple of years have generally offered up at least a few laughs an episode, rather consistently, which is more than I can say for most network comedies. In any event, the folks in Camps One and Four will likely come to this film with tempered-to-low expectations, and I think they’ll be pleasantly surprised at the number of laughs the flick provides. Meanwhile, the folks in Camps Two and Three may have higher expectations, but for them, the film will likely meet those expectations as well, as it’s surely funnier than the last several seasons of the show. In fact, leaving the theater last night, I heard some obvious Camp Two folks saying they thought this was the best flick they’d seen in years (that’s quite a stretch, in my book, but you get the point).
Backing up to look at the movie itself, while it starts off a little scattershot, the film quickly slides into familiar territory, with a larger A-plot and a smaller B-plot. The “main plot” story is basically about pig shit: Homer adopts a pig — the “Spider-Pig” we’ve seen in the trailers — and his depositing of the pig’s crap into Lake Springfield is the last straw in a brewing environmental calamity, which leads to the President and EPA head Russ Cargill (wonderfully voiced by our old pal Hank Scorpio, a.k.a., Albert Brooks) stepping in to “fix” things. This “fix,” of course, puts the whole town in pretty dire straits and leaves the Simpsons clan in a bit of a pickle, since everyone blames Homer. I’ll skip over the details of how all of this goes down and plays out, but I will say this — while it’s clear that the writers and producers tried to turn everything up a notch with this story, it still didn’t feel very “big screen.” It wasn’t bad, by any stretch, but it just didn’t feel like something that had to be told in movie form. Which isn’t to say that the film simply felt like an expanded episode, because that’s not true either — it just didn’t have the “epic” feel one might have expected, or hoped for, even with the whole “is Springfield doomed?” element of the story.
Meanwhile, there’s also that B-plot focusing on Homer’s relationship with Marge and Bart. The family relationship has always been the show’s heart and soul, and it comes as no surprise that this is the case with the movie as well — the whole Lake Springfield storyline exacerbates what Bart feels is a broken relationship with Homer, and it also puts some considerable strain on Homer and Marge’s marriage. Of course, neither of these is really new ground. Bart and Homer have had plenty of ups and downs over the years (perhaps most memorably in “Brother from the Same Planet,” where Bart gets himself a big brother and Homer, in turn, takes on cute little “Pepsi” as his little brother). Similarly, Marge and Homer have found their relationship on the rocks in countless episodes over the years. And while the movie manages to take a fairly fresh approach to the Bart/Homer angle, the Homer/Marge aspect really feels like a been-there-done-that (in fact, fans of the show will recognize one sequence which is basically a rehash of a classic episode, which is a bit inexplicable as it doesn’t feel like an “homage” to that episode, nor is it as funny). But despite whatever flaws there may be in the family angle, it does manage to act as film’s underlying emotional thread, and to that end, it ultimately serves the movie just fine.
Now some might have expected truly great things on the story front, given the fact that virtually every “big name” (to the fans, at least) writer and exec-producer from the show’s history contributed to the movie, with the notable exceptions of Conan O’Brien and Sam Simon (an original co-developer of the show who has since had a falling out with the other OGs). But the end result really isn’t that surprising at all — I mean, the show has aired over 400 episodes, and as a great “South Park” episode riffed years ago, “The Simpsons” have really already done everything there is to do. So we can’t be that surprised that there are some shortcomings to the story, or a resultant feeling of deja vu, can we? But there is something which I found rather surprising. Without giving much away, I’ll tell you that the family ends up leaving Springfield for a spell, and this felt like a huge mistake to me. Sure, this decision offered an opportunity to focus on the family a bit more. But with so many beloved and wonderful secondary characters, why would you put yourself in a situation where you’re not able to do more with them all? You do catch a glimpse of almost everyone you want to see, and many get at least a moment of big screen glory, but I really felt they could have done a lot more here. In fact, there was a scene towards the end of the film which showed a potentially genius storyline that was inexplicably ignored here, a “what if the whole town went Lord of the Flies?” That scene actually caused me to be a little disappointed, as I realized what untapped potential there was.
But in the grand scheme of things, these complaints about the film’s story are relatively minor and overcome by two other aspects of the movie — its art and its humor. While the movie may not feel truly at truly home on the big screen from a story aspect, it absolutely does from a visual aspect. It’s simply gorgeous to watch. The animation and coloring is as crisp as it’s ever been and, more importantly, the artists really took advantage of the widescreen format, giving us some truly wonderful settings and shots. From simple wider-angle views of the family’s home to expansive shots of Springfield and Alaska, the visuals are just plain fun.
More importantly, of course, the flick is funny. We always knew that this is what would make or break the movie — can they bring the laughs? And it turns out that they can, more-or-less. In fact, the first twenty-or-so minutes of the film are absolutely hilarious. Not necessarily on par with the genius years, but not far removed. And if this pace had been kept up over the course of the whole film, it might’ve escalated from a funny film to a truly hilarious film. But as it is, things tend to slow down a little as the film moves more into the main storylines. There are still some laughs throughout the rest of the movie, but the jokes just don’t quite come as quickly or as humorously as they do in the beginning.
Which leads to the one true shame of this flick. As I said, I do think it generally meets expectations. But when you look at the great comedy early in the film, and when you see some of the untapped story elements, you realize that this movie just didn’t hit the heights that it had the potential for. It’s still a good flick, but I think it could’ve been a great one. You know, the current show-runner, Al Jean, said that his hopes for the movie were that it would be “somewhere between Sgt. Pepper’s the album and Sgt. Pepper’s the movie.” Ultimately, I think that’s exactly what we’ve got here. It’s a good movie with enough laughs and entertainment value to be worth the price of admission and, truthfully, while I haven’t bought a set of the show’s DVDs since Season Eight, I’ll almost surely pick this DVD up when it comes out.
Homer once taught Bart and Lisa the following life-lesson: “Kids, you tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is, never try.” Thankfully, that’s not the lesson here.
Seth Freilich is Pajiba’s television editor. For the record, his favorite episode is, hands down, “The PTA Disbands.” It’s an eminently quotable episode which is often overlooked in discussions of the show’s greatest episodes.
Greatest. Movie. Ever?
The Simpsons Movie / Seth Freilich
Film Reviews | July 27, 2007 | Comments ()