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Homer's new odyssey no fantastic voyage

Even before I sat down to watch The Simpsons Movie, I found myself struggling to figure out how best to approach my review. Should I treat the film as a discrete animated feature and disregard the TV series I grew up watching? Or do I allow the weight of its nineteen-plus year existence to pressure my review? In many ways, it's impossible not to bring that baggage into the film, and most spectators will no doubt be, at the very least, passingly familiar with Homer, Bart, and Co. The Simpsons are, at this stage, familiarity incarnate. Some people know far more about Bumblebee Man, Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel, and the other characters crammed into Springfield's periphery than they know about their own neighbors.

Indeed, the world of Springfield is so iconic and well-known that many concerns I might typically bring to bear on an animated film simply become irrelevant. Character design, animation, setting, voice acting: the look and feel of almost all of these things are heavily tied to the show's legacy and aren't expected to improve or be particularly dazzling in the film version (at least, not in the same way that they are in each new original CGI feature). Although the film DOES offer more technical razzle-dazzle and a far more detailed-looking version of Springfield than the weekly series, that's not what made $70+ million worth of cinemagoers flock to The Simpsons Movie this past weekend. People came for the familiar antics of TV's favorite family, and for the laughs. Sadly, there's reason to be disappointed on both counts.

The Simpsons Movie's story revolves almost entirely around Homer and his near-solipsistic world view. This is the late-series Homer, the one rarely seen to work in the nuclear plant, and who always has time to pursue whatever self-interested scheme his dim mind can conjure. Here, expediency (and the promise of free donuts) leads Homer to break an embargo on dumping waste into Lake Springfield, causing a nightmarish environmental disaster. This disaster prompts Russ Cargill (Albert Brooks), the power-mad head of the EPA, to seal Springfield off from the outside world in a giant plastic bubble, dooming the town to a slow death by starvation. Naturally, the citizens of Springfield prepare to lynch the Simpsons, who conveniently escape and go on the lam. Meanwhile, Homer's self-absorption threatens to tear the family apart.

Almost none of the ground covered here is particularly new. Fans of the show can likely recall several environmentally-themed episodes, and the number of episodes in which Homer's thickheadedness has nearly driven Marge and the kids away is innumerable. It's difficult not to look at these plot devices, and their eventual resolutions, as retreads of a formula. Such retreads, and the thinness of the plot stretched over them, aren't quite as glaring in a 30 min episode as they are in a 90 minute film. Even the subplots, featuring Bart's envy of Ned Flanders' loving attention to his family and Lisa's new Irish environmentalist beau, feel warmed over. Perhaps some of these flaws are the fault of the film's long gestation, as it was reportedly conceived almost fourteen years ago. Yet, in some ways, this long incubation period makes the film's stale odor even less acceptable: it's not as if there wasn't time enough to fix the plot.

Even with the lower degree of censorship typically applied to feature films, the writers take few chances. While there are a couple of risque moments, including a much-hyped glimpse of Bart's manhood, there aren't any outright shocks. This isn't to say the filmmakers needed to reach South Park levels of profanity or dirt. There are ways to be edgy, risky, and sharp WITHOUT going that route. Once, 'The Simpsons' reveled such chicanery. But here, the moments that should bite feel toothless and the jabs that once stung now lack force.

One of the most unfortunate circumstances of the film's familial focus is that many of the show's great characters get little time to shine. Some appear only in massive crowd sequences, mute, while others get one or two gags or lines a piece. The series's writers have been getting great mileage out of Springfield's wacky denizens in each half-hour episode for years. How they managed to do less with them in a longer timeframe, I just don't know. This isn't to say there aren't welcome moments: Ralph Wiggum has a particularly good line during Bart's skateboarding stunt, and a town meeting sequence also generates a few solid laughs. Even Santa's Little Helper got a gut-busting moment. But otherwise, the town and its residents feel somehow under utilized and I found few occasions to laugh-out-loud.

Indeed, the film rarely reaches any sort of high point of entertainment. There are many moments that look as though they SHOULD be funny, moments that one thinks SOMEONE might find very funny, but are only sort of amusing in a passive way to you. This description would be apt if applied to the film as a whole. Despite its efforts, including attempts to cram in as many visual references to earlier episodes as possible, The Simpsons Movie never becomes much more than an average episode of the series at three times the average length. To paraphrase Homer in the film's too-clever-by-half intro, "Why pay to watch something you can see on TV for free!" To justify any sort of positive review, Simpsons would have to bring far more to the table than it does.

Do yourself a favor: instead of blowing $10 on a single screening of this underwhelming film, spend $40 on the DVD set of your preferred Simpsons season, which you can keep and watch as often as you like. I promise you'll get more laughs for your money out of just about any three-episode-arc as you will here. Fourteen years go, this film might have worked. It may still work for you, if you have low enough expectations. But for many of us, I suspect, its time has passed.
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