Directed by: David Silverman
Written by: James L. Brooks, Matt Groening, Al Jean, Ian Maxtone-Graham, George Meyer, David Mirkin, Mike Reiss, Mike Scully, Matt Selman, John Swartzwelder, Jon Vitti
I've been watching The Simpsons every day for the last, oh, about eighteen years, so the prospect of a "major motion picture" excited me but, admittedly, once I finally got to see it, I was disappointed. Though I'm not sure what I expected, since I knew that any Simpsons Movie would have two major, insurmountable obstacles even before a single cell was animated, a single line was voiced by the talented cast, or even before the first draft of the script was completed.
First off, the absurdist humor of the television show works so well because, structurally, the series' writing staff has mastered subverting the standard three-act narrative, allowing the twenty-two minute stories to progress as absurdly as the jokes delivered within them. On television, the first third of any given episode sets you up only marginally, at best, for the final third. Of course, had this been attempted in the movie, it would have suffered from what many television to cinema adaptations suffer from: a narrative that's little more than three loosely connected episodes. (That might play well on television, with "to be continued..." markers, but doesn't fly on the big screen.) The Simpsons Movie was destined to be damned if it did and damned if it didn't. Homer himself hints at this dilemma, in the movie's first reel, while with the family at The Itchy and Scratchy Movie. "I can't believe we're paying to see something we get on TV for free!" he bemoans, adding, "everyone in this theater's a giant sucker!"
But The Simpsons Movie does distinguish itself from its small-screen counterpart by creating a nice, normal, linear three-act storyline, following basic narrative guidelines to a fault—Homer nearly destroys Springfield and is outcast, then must return to save it. Unfortunately, that moviemaking style isn't very conducive to The Simpsons' sense of humor, which is why the television writers have avoided it like a laugh track since the early '90s. That also hints at the second problem: while there have been comedians who've pulled it off, like Woody Allen or the Marx Bros., comedy in cinema is particularly difficult to maintain for ninety or so minutes, and as such I've long felt that comedy is a style much better suited to the abbreviated medium of television, which has brought us the hilarious Simpsons, week after week. In cinema, the expansive grandeur and the Cinemascope framing—which is, it should be noted, beautifully animated—don't facilitate the small scale brand of humor that's made The Simpsons such a hilarious success.
Those criticisms aside, though, The Simpsons Movie is funny—there are a lot of great gags and one-liners peppered throughout, in particular the already infamous Spider-Pig sequence. I could also appreciate its subversive swipes at organized religion, the NSA spy program and Americans' large-scale apathy towards environmental crisis, expressed in a scene in which Lisa goes door to door, each slammed in her face, trying to amass interest in saving the over-polluted Lake Springfield. (Plus it features what we all came here to see—hardcore nudity!) What it's short on, or so I felt on this initial viewing, is belly laughs, of which the series have never been for want.
But on an optimistic note, I'm confident that it'll play better down the line, especially once it starts appearing on DVD or television, the best jokes forgotten and not spoiled by promotional spots as it takes its rightful place alongside its fellow episodes, down on the small screen.