‘Why would I pay to see something I can watch at home on TV for free?’ Homer asks in the prologue to one of the most anticipated movies in 20 years. The film opens with the Simpsons sitting in a cinema watching the Itchy and Scratchy movie, and in Homer’s plaintive outburst lies both the premise of and success in The Simpsons Movie – the film’s self-reflexive subversion of its own existence.
Seditious long before Family Guy, American Dad, a thousand other imitators and the host of TV boundaries that have been broken since it first aired in 1989 – everything from movie-sized effects budgets to not cutting out the ‘f’ word – The Simpsons parodies every aspect of American life from the intimacies of family to the bureaucratic ineptitude of western governments – even itself. At one point, there’s a crawler ad along the bottom of the screen advertising a Fox TV show with the cheery addendum ‘see, we even advertise shows in movies now!’
But the big hopes for a movie about the famous family weren’t on its continued wielding of humour as the most effective weapons against the idiocies of modern life in America, but those that it wouldn’t fall into the trap most TV shows do when transposed to a feature film.
Most half hour comedies made into films try to fit into the very different structural and form factors of a movie by trying to be Grand Unified Theory of the show they’re spawned from, the final word of everything in the mythology. The X Files, Bean and South Park; Bigger, Longer Uncut all suffered sluggish final halves and trailing laughter counts because they couldn’t replicate the short, sharp jabs of their source material, where the secret to comedy is to make them laugh and leave them wanting more.
The Simpsons Movie beats such obstacles almost by simply mashing a few episodes together and threading some sub-plotting throughout to stitch it into a whole. That sounds like a criticism, and some Internet viewer reports have already been negative about it, but it works in not letting the Simpsons mythology and characters get too far above their station, making what could be an entertaining 90-minute TV show rather than trying to be The Ultimate Simpsons Experience.
Being on a par with the quality of the TV show still ensures a very high quality however, and you’ll be laughing the whole way through to the style of gags and set-ups the series is famous for. There’s the slapstick (Homer lining up to hammer a nail and hitting himself in the eye on the backswing), the cuttingly satirical (the vast NSA chamber full of communications eavesdroppers, an overjoyed operator standing up to happily reveal finding someone the government is actually looking for) and everything in between – most of it hilarious.
Springfield Lake is so polluted it’s almost a toxic waste dump. After the unfortunate members of Green Day sink forever on their concert barge as the poison eats it away, Lisa urges the townspeople to act. The lake is cleaned up and saved until Homer dumps a silo of pig excrement in it (long story) and pollutes it so badly that Cargill, the corrupt head of the EPA convinces President Schwarzenneger to cut the town off from the world in an enormous glass dome.
The enraged townspeople take up torches and pitchforks to lead a lynching against Homer, and the family escapes to start a new life in Alaska while Cargill convinces the President to blow Springfield off the face of the map – the ensuing crater already being advertised as the New Grand Canyon by Tom Hanks.
Yes, you can describe the plot in two paragraphs. It would take pages to talk about the threads that hold it together – from Krusty’s pork sandwich to the boy Lisa falls in love with who isn’t Bono’s son. That’s also without mentioning the puns, blink-and-miss-them movie references, sight gags, Simpsons in-jokes, jibes at the military-industrial complex and unabashed grabs for laughs that’ll have you in stitches of varying degrees.
Like a new Star Wars film, few people who’ve watched TV in the last quarter century will need convincing to go and see The Simpsons Movie. It’s hard to believe series creator Matt Groening dreamed it up for a pitch meeting on the spot and it’s come so far, but The Simpsons has always proved the simplest ideas are the best. For 20 years it’s been gestating characters, situations and storylines millions of people love, and The Simpsons Movie stands up to it all.