"It plays out pretty much like an extended disaster-scenario version of a regular half-hour show."

Brings the Small Screen Experience to the Big Screen

(080307) Two jokes into “The Simpsons Movie,” Homer turns to the audience and calls everyone suckers for paying for something they can get for free on TV. It’s one of those meta moments that has made the TV series a cultural touchstone.

But in addition to serving as postmodern commentary on a movie industry that will adapt anything it can’t sequelize, Homer’s admonition is a harbinger of mediocrity. The first third of “The Simpsons Movie” is as good as or better than any recent episode. The punch lines are piled one on top of another, the characters poke fun at the establishment, Homer strangles Bart.

But soon after, the laughs are replaced with deja vu. It’s as if the creators reached the show’s usual 22-minute mark and ran out of gas. In what essentially is a flabby, movie-length episode, Homer has turned the local lake into a toxic stew, forcing the U.S. government to encase Springfield in a giant glass bubble. He and the family escape to Alaska, where he inevitably alienates his wife and kids, goes on an Inuit vision quest and vows to fix the mess he made.

(For those playing along at home, the plot is a mix of several episodes, most notably “Marge vs. the Monorail” and “El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Homer.”) “The Simpsons” still is one of the best shows on the idiot box. But “The Simpsons Movie” is a mixed bag. Maybe it’s just CGI-fatigue, but the animation here is fantastic. The shading is lush, and computer animation is seamlessly integrated with the hand-drawn scenes. But compared to the singular vision of Brad Bird’s “
Ratatouille” and “The Incredibles,” “The Simpsons Movie” feels scripted by a roomful of writers chained to one iMac.

There are truly hilarious moments. Bart takes a naked skateboard run through Springfield. Homer fishes with a bug zapper. President Arnold Schwarzenegger tells the head of the EPA he “was elected to lead, not to read.”

But attempts to ratchet up the patented Simpsons irreverence fail and succeed in equal amounts. One character flips the bird, and another takes a pull off a bong — and both instances seem forced. The satirical balance also flounders. It’s right when Grampa Simpson starts speaking in tongues in church and a panicked Homer flips through the Bible, saying, “This book doesn’t have any answers! ”But the film’s “Save the Earth” theme seems heavy-handed and passé, especially nowadays when people drive hybrids to grocery stores full of locally grown organic produce.

Generally, the best episodes of the Simpsons have treated Homer as an average guy caught in the middle of the conservative Marge, the liberal Lisa and the anarchist Bart. When the series makes Homer out to be a brain-damaged moron, things get wobbly.

So Homer climbing on the ceiling with a pig while singing bastardized lyrics to the “Spider-Man” theme song is bizarre even by Simpsons standards. But Marge telling her Homey she has had it with his shenanigans is a moment with more real emotion than any live-action film this summer. “The Simpsons Movie” was expected to raise the bar for animated film — especially 2-D animation. Unfortunately, it’s just another example of what could have been. "The Simpsons Movie" is like going for a meal at a big chain restaurant: the kind with reliable service, big menu, even bigger portions and a cluttered-so-it-must-be-lively interior designed by a corporate art department. What's most important is consistency. You might not get a meal beyond your expectations, but you're also not going to walk out hungry.

That's how this big-screen adaptation of the long-running TV series plays out: It's certainly not groundbreaking in the sense of rocking the "Simpsons" universe. No startling character developments, no dramatic revelations, no egregious sell-outs, no plot trajectories in opposition to the series. Bart doesn't start shaving. Lisa doesn't attend her high school prom. Smither's doesn't marry a pregnant country belle and make Mr. Burns the godfather of the child. (Which, when you think about it, could make a pretty good "Simpsons" episode if a turkey baster were involved.)

The point is that "The Simpsons Movie" plays it safe. Matt Groening, the creator/god of the show, has said he wouldn't make a movie until he found the perfect script. I'm not sure why he decided this was the one. It plays out pretty much like an extended disaster-scenario version of a regular half-hour show. If anything, we're so used to short bursts of these characters that it's hard when the movie drags past the hour point.

Other than making some lively jokes about the fact that the audience is paying for a movie rather than watching it for free on TV -- and the chance to see the vibrant colors of familiar Springfield in all their big-screen glory -- the experience is strangely akin to sitting in your living room.

Directed by:    David Silverman
Written by:    Mike Reiss, George Meyer, James L. Brooks.
 Based on the television series "The Simpsons"
Starring the Voices of:    Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright, Yeardley Smith
Released:    07/27/07 (USA)
Length:    86 minutes
Rating:    PG-13 for irreverent humor throughout.

THE SIMPSON'S MOVIE © 2007 Copyright Holder.
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