The big moment has finally arrived for "America's First Family of Comedy." And it's literally the "big" moment, as The Simpsons move from the small screen to the big one. 400 Simpsons episodes totalling over 130 hours have gone out over FOX's airwaves since Christmas of 1989. And 15 years of rumors, pent-up speculation, and drooling anticipation for Simpsons fans comes down to 87 minutes in a multiplex in the company of friends and strangers. In other words, it's party time. The $50-100-million-dollar question (depending on which budget rumor you believe): does The Simpsons Movie live up to the hype?
Well, nothing would live up to this kind of hype, but The Simpsons Movie gives it the old Ivy League college try, with an official writer's roster that numbers at eleven—Matt Groening, James L. Brooks, Al Jean, Ian Maxtone-Graham, George Meyer, David Mirkin, Mike Reiss, Mike Scully, Matt Selman, John Swartzwelder, Jon Vitti—with consultants Joel Cohen, John Frink, Tim Long, and Michael Price throwing in two cents apiece. The writers, as wrangled by creator-producers Groening and Brooks, span the 18 years of the show's history (many were not only writers but "show-runners"), and the film's many moods reflect the comic and emotional reach of the series.
The plot is appropriately "big," encompasssing a major crisis for hometown Springfield and the Simpsons family unit (speaking of family units, Bart takes advantage of the PG-13 to show his—never mind...). Through a familiar combination of innocent recklessness and willful disregard, Homer (voice of Dan Castellaneta) creates an environmental disaster, which in turn causes the town to be literally written off (the map) by evil EPA Director Russ Cargill (A. Brooks—"A" for Albert) and President Schwarzenegger (Harry Shearer). (Simpsons fans will note with glee that Schwarzenegger continues to sound exactly like his TV doppleganger, Rainier Wolfcastle, also voiced by Shearer.)
This variant set of Homer shenanigans is as fresh as can be expected (not very): he's been responsible for Springfield's near destruction and national isolation on numerous occasions. Simpsons fans will be able to tick off the ideas already used, in different shapes and sizes, on TV: a family member getting more than he bargains for with a new pet—in this case, a pig for Homer; Flanders (Shearer) making a preferable fatherly role model—in this case to a vulnerable Bart; the Simpsons picking up and moving to/visiting somewhere they've never been before—in this case, Alaska; a famous band gigging in Springfield—in this case, Green Day; enviromental mutation causing spontaneous eye growth—in this case, to a squirrel.
Still, as the comedy chestnut goes, it's all in the delivery, and at least at first, the rapid-fire jokes are fresh enough to keep The Simpsons Movie seem like a classic in the making. Green Day's cameo is at least as funny as any rock-band cameo from the series, for example, and the film thankfully remembers to work the series' best quality: satirical bite. The series makes efforts to be bipartisan in its digs, but the movie betrays a timely leftist ire-ny in its patriot-acts. Take for example, billionaire Mr. Burns' snide reaction to being asked for electricity during the crisis: "Well, for once, the rich white man is in control!" Or the Katrina-esque disaster that prompts an all-too-human reaction: the panicked patrons of a church and a bar sprinting to switch buildings.
Such vintage gags bloom regularly during the plot's ascension. The characterizations of the family are also on the money (thanks, no doubt, to Brooks' insistence on humanity as a priority over absurdity). Homer and Bart (Nancy Cartwright) ideally display their inappropriate, codependent, and ultimately loving father-son relationship. In a gut-wrenching "Dear John" monologue, Marge (Julie Kavner) has a long dark night of her marital soul that almost makes us forget Marge has effectively already done this on TV (but, hey, it's been well over a decade since she sounded this serious). As usual, Lisa (Yeardley Smith) meets with indifference in an environmental push (she gets a romance as compensation). As for Maggie, well, a little absurdity never hurt anyone.
Series vet David Silverman does a bang-up job of directing. Great storyboarding is a given (though, here, super-sized); it's the characters and backgrounds—never more fluid, and newly shaped by light and shadow—that truly impress. The peerless voice cast (including Hank Azaria as bartender Moe, among many others) is worth every penny. And though the money guest star is Brooks, voicing his sixth Simpsons character, one Major Film Star shows up to ask, "If you're going to pick a government to trust, why not this one?" Forgetting plot demands, many fans will ponder the film's lightness on second-tier characters (mostly relegated to extra status) and general absence of musical numbers.
Speaking of fan gripes, gird for some Comic-Book-Guy-esque nitpicking. The big-screen allowance for naughtiness felt much more organic in South Park's cinematic home-run South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, but showboating nothwithstanding, The Simpsons Movie's teasing obscenities are pretty funny (in addition to jaundiced nudity, explicit substance abuse and obscene gestures get a whirl). And I suppose an irreverent animated feature wouldn't be complete without a couple of rote shots at Disney. Brooks and Groening take a noticeable misstep in choosing Hans Zimmer's musical bombast over the series' tried-and-true Alf Clausen.
In short, a good time will be had by all at The Simpsons Movie. That the plot pushes the family dynamic to its breaking point is admirable; that the other half of the movie pursues panoramic excess is inevitable. Where the twain meets is a good movie, but also one that betrays the strain of great expectations, a four-episode length, and a 400-episode back catalog. It's like a supersized episode of the show, circa 2007: rapid-fire hilarity at the outset, scattered shots of family angst and satire in the middle, and a somewhat flatulent wrapup. Don't have a cow, man. Just enjoy the rare experience of watching The Simpsons with a room full of guffawing American peers, on the Biggest. Screen. Ever.