The Simpsons Movie is as hard to critique as it is to resist. That’s because, after 18 years, we are all Simpsons now: How many days can you go without at least mentally quoting an episode, whether it’s Monty Burns’ finger-steepling “Exxx-cellent!” or Homer’s glazed-eyed trance at the sight of a donut? The show’s irreverent, reference-packed satire has shaped the sense of humor of an entire generation. And the closest thing we have to an American national archetype is The Simpsons’ pudgy paterfamilias: greedy, blundering, and hopelessly dense, but well-meaning and tirelessly optimistic. Homer Simpson, c’est nous.
And like us, he’s a sucker for a good marketing campaign. “I can’t believe we’re paying to see something we can get on TV for free,” Homer whines in the opening frames,as the family takes in a big-screen version of The Itchy and Scratchy Show. Ha. The Simpsons Movie starts small, with story lines that echo old episodes: Lisa canvasses the town to save Springfield Lake from pollution. Grandpa goes nuts and begins prophesying in church. Homer rescues a pig from slaughter, bonding with it so deeply that he drives the jealous Bart to seek solace with neighbor Ned Flanders. It isn’t until Homer breaks the law by dumping his silo of pig droppings into the lake (“That could be anybody’s pig crap silo!” he protests when the deed is exposed) that Springfield officially becomes the most toxic place on planet Earth. The evil EPA chief Russ Cargill (voiced by Albert Brooks) convinces President Arnold Schwarzenegger to seal off the entire city with an impenetrable glass dome (manufactured, conveniently, by Cargill Domes).
A long middle section in which the family escapes to Alaska sags a bit (which is to say, the joke density drops from one laugh per second to one every five or six seconds). But when they make it back to Springfield, which has by now slipped into Lord of the Flies-style anarchy and been targeted for nuclear annihilation by Cargill, the pace picks up as Homer saves the day the only way he knows how: by making one incredibly poor choice after another.
This last sequence, with its shots of the vast transparent dome covering the city, is one of the few that takes advantage of the possibilities offered by the big-screen format. Visually, most of The SimpsonsMovie could have come straight from a TV episode, but those who share the Comic Book Guy’s love for old-school animation will be fine with the choice to keep things flat, wonky, and minimally drawn. But the movie does seize its theatrical opportunity to sneak in a bit of what Krusty the Clown would call “blue material.” Otto the bus driver smokes a bowl. Marge curses. And Bart has both a drunk scene and a few seconds of full-frontal nudity.
The real difficulty in translating the show to film was how to maintain the pacing of a compact three-act sitcom for the length of a feature. The solution, arrived at by a group of 11 veteran writers of the show including creator Matt Groening, was to keep it short. At 85 minutes, The Simpsons Movie takes less time than viewing four shows back-to-back. And even if none of those four rise to the level of the best TV episodes—”Whacking Day,” say, or “Cape Feare“—there’s one sight gag involving Moe’s Bar that’s as timeless a piece of social criticism as Homer’s classic axiom about alcohol, which he once called “the cause of, and solution to, all our problems.”
Nearly all of the show’s minor supporting characters—Moe Szyslak, Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel, Hans Moleman—get to make at least an appearance, though it would have been nice to see larger speaking roles for favorites like Apu and Mr. Smithers. Also, Sideshow Bob could have had the decency to break out of prison for at least a cursory attempt on Bart’s life. I guess they have to save something for the sequel.