The first thing to say about the transition of the Simpsons from small screen to big is don’t believe the hype – it’s even better than the marketing men have had us believe.
As a fanatical Simpsons fan, I sat down in the cinema hoping for good things, but painfully aware that a 22 minute TV show would struggle to stretch to 80 minutes, and that after 18 seasons, the show has changed massively and evolved into a more political, more issues-based comedy show, that isn’t as good as its original humour best.
Despite the transfer to both the big screen and the longer format, everything survived largely intact, while a script over three years in the making ensured that everyone kept laughing while also playing up to the hardcore TV show fan.
Back to the film, and the scene for the next 82 minutes is set as soon as the 20th Century Fox logo appears, complete with Ralph Wiggum standing inside the 0 of 20th making the noises of the Fox jingle.
Without using too many spoilers, the theme of the movie is simply this: an environmental crisis in Springfield is made even worse by Homer, causing the entire town to be punished for his stupidity and craving for donuts. Narrowly avoiding being lynched by the entire town, the Simpson family flee to Alaska, before guilt gets the better of them and the family, initially without a stubborn Homer, go back to try and save Springfield and face the wrath of the US Environmental Protection Agency, which is conducting a nationwide manhunt for the Simpson clan after they escaped the town quarantine.
The film is mostly a caper, but with full-frontal male nudity (just in case you ever wondered how things were formed inside those cartoon blue shorts) and a heavy overtone of political satire.
Within the environmental disaster theme there are anti-Iraq war jokes and commentary, criticisms of the way the US government has limited personal freedoms, criticisms of the oil drilling in Alaska and other areas of natural beauty, digs at the intelligence of the President and at his ability to read (surely more a dig at George Bush rather than the guy they put in the Oval Office).
Partly to help stretch what would normally have been a two-part TV episode (the similarities between the movie and the ‘Who killed Mr Burns’ two-parter are numerous, a bit too numerous in fact, but nonetheless still makes for a great laugh-out-loud movie, even for a Simpsons hard core fan), the film includes a multitude of movie and TV pastiches to help stretch things out.
Expect to see a tip of the Le Show chapeau towards Titanic, An Inconvenient Truth, Children of the Corn, The West Wing, War Games, Outbreak and Lord of the Flies to name just a fraction of the movies and TV shows that the writing team have either borrowed from or paid homage to. On a similar note, see if you can spot the link back to the Signor Ding Dong episode of the TV show.
Poking fun at Fox, one of dozens of in-jokes in Simpsons history doesn’t stop in the movie, with both a nod to Fox’s cheap and tasteless roots and the annoying way it promotes upcoming shows in its TV schedules, not to mention an interesting beginning where we the audience are lambasted in well-executed comedy fashion by Homer for paying to watch something we normally get for free.
Cue the final showdown between Homer and EPA boss Russ Cargill, who bares more than a striking resemblance to Homer’s supervillan former employer Hank Scorpio (both characters are voiced by Albert Brooks).
The last 15 minutes of the movie are a machine-gun attack of laughs, including some very predictable hackneyed visual gags (when Homer gets stuck on the wrecking ball bouncing between a very big rock and a bar called A Hard Place), which despite being predictable 30 seconds in advance and being circa 1850, still had the audience in stitches, as did anything that involved Homer being hit in the knackers.
As usual, it’s Homer’s carefree view on life and recklessness that ultimately saves the day, with a bit of help from Bart who is increasingly finding himself drawn towards Ned Flanders as a father figure in the face of Homer’s increasing idiocy, only to return to the arms of his father that the critical last moment. The ending is reminiscent of the ending to season seven episode “Home Sweet Homediddly-Dum-Doodily”, the one where Homer prevents Bart from being christened by Ned.
Celebrity cameo appearances are limited to just one – a brief drop-in by Tom Hanks. The cameo was pointless and added nothing whatsoever to the storyline. It didn’t even bring any additional humour – it was a celebrity voiceover for the sake of it.
This came during the 10-minute low-point of the movie, when the tempo dropped, the jokes temporarily ran out and things got a bit serious. If this film was three episodes stitched together, and basically it is, then this was the 10 minutes of fatty filler between episodes two and three.
The use of computer animation to create this movie, rather than the traditional method used in the majority of the TV episodes has changed the look and feel. The on-screen images are not as 2D and flat as we are used to, the shadowing a little too perfect and there’s use of realistic flames and water where hand drawn efforts would normally suffice. It is instantly recognisable as The Simpsons, but at the same time, the animation is not quite right.
This is immediately evident when Homer pulls up on his driveway for the first time (the pink saloon car is all wrong), and with the heavily CGI-based steadycam sweep through the lunch mob. Though impressive, just isn’t typical Simpsons animation – I had flashbacks to how odd the CGI clone army looked in the second of the god-awful George Lucas Star Wars prequels compared to the usual legions of humans in storm trooper outfits we had been used to in the original three Star Wars movies. For that reason alone, I really wish production had been entrusted to the army of illustrators in China and Taiwan that usually draw the majority of the TV show images rather than the CGI brigade.
There are worse CGI crimes in modern cinema than this, but I’d still line a few computer graphics geeks up in front of a firing squad, if only to send a message to the remaining CGI producers.
There are some glaring inconsistencies though: For one, Arnold Schwarzenegger is President of the United States in the film. The character is clearly Schwarzenegger copycat character Rainier Wolfcastle, as is the voice, yet this time they actually use the real name. The end result is that it’s not as funny as it could have been. Having McBain running the country would actually be more amusing than having the real Kindergarten Cop. Given the use of Arnie’s name, I’m surprised the appearance of Drederick Tatum didn’t have the character rebranded as the real person he was sending up (that’s Mike Tyson by the way).
Finally, spare a thought for Spider Pig, aka Harry Plopper. What appears in the trailer as a comedy sideline in the end has a key role across the entire movie, before vanishing from the movie towards the end (in typical Simpsons writing fashion, when they run out of use for a key character, they simply forget about them). There is more to the Spider Pig song than we’ve seen in the trailers, and it was enough to make me laugh so hard I almost fell out of my seat.
So, in conclusion The Simpsons Movie is not perfect, but for the first of what will almost certainly be several big screen outings for Homer and Co, it is a stunningly good effort.
When a movie, especially an animation, has been in pre-production for as long as this one has, you run the risk of the finished piece being unfunny due to design by committee. In this case, all that preparation work ensured that the movie took the TV show forward, rather than just being a wall-to-wall rehash of decade-old yet still funny jokes and visual gags.