(Image courtesy 20th Century Fox)
I have been to Springfield, and though I can't tell you in what state it's located, both Maine and Kentucky lie adjacent. At least that's the way geography works in the imaginative universe created by Matt Groening all the way back in 1988. Our full review from Scott Foundas of The Simpsons Movie will be online tomorrow (Wednesday), but I'll offer a few observations from today's press screening after the jump...
Best. Movie. Ever? Well, since I'm a fat pop-culture snob like Comic Book Guy, a better phrasing might be Best. Movie. This. Week. Or the second best animated film this summer, after Ratatouille. At 87 minutes, The Simpsons Movie doesn't feel like one TV episode stretched past the breaking point, but it does feel episodic. Running jokes and recurring characters help link the film together. I have no intention of repeating jokes or giving away key plot points, but the structure is one of exile-and-return. That is--Simpsons family in crisis, which parallels Springfield in crisis; a forced family adventure in an exotic locale; and a climactic return to town to confront an environmental catastrophe and government overreaction.
The look of the film is faithfully flat, though the framing is wider than traditional TV aspect ratio. (Meaning it'll be letterboxed for future broadcast and DVD.) This gives Marge's blue tower of hair and Homer's blubbery rolls of fat more room to breathe, as it were. It makes the characters' faces and jokes smaller, in effect; the humor isn't shoved into the foreground so much. Director David Silverman previously co-directed Monsters, Inc., a Pixar movie with a lot of chases and action, and that legacy is enormously helpful here. Bart on a skateboard rampage through town, Homer unleashed on an Evel Knievel-style motorcycle stunt, Marge doing the dishes (!) in a flaming house--none of these sequences would work so well on a small box in your living room. (Such was the world in 1988, when Groening began drawing the clan; the modern era of huge flat-screen TV's is ideally suited to a revival of Futurama, if that ever comes.) While The Simpsons Movie doesn't have the action panache of Brad Bird's The Incredibles (he also helmed Ratatouille), those influences are felt. Granted, the Simpsons themselves aren't a family of superheroes, but they're adjusting somewhat to our CGI world.
Who's there, who isn't there? Not everyone's favorite supporting character (out of hundreds) can be granted a speaking role. Personally, I feel Smithers has been shortchanged. Where are aliens Kang and Kodos? And it never hurts to have more of Groundskeeper Willie. But those are quibbles; to a perhaps surprising degree, the film retreats to the original sitcom foursome who sit on the couch together at the start of each TV episode. Where the show has been striving to get out of the house, as it were, for all these many seasons, here the dozen-odd credited writers concentrate on what keeps the Simpsons together. Celebrity cameos are kept to a minimum, with one well-placed movie icon appearing as himself. (Albert Brooks voices the movie's villain, a kind of Department of Homeland Security stooge, like Tom Ridge crossed with John Ashcroft; as always, Groening has a lasting suspicion for the meddling government.) And of course there are references to other movies--from Titanic to An Inconvenient Truth--without going overboard about it. That's something Groening and producer James L. Brooks were doing on TV long before those Shrek bozos made the movie-within-a-movie device so tiresome and formulaic. All those veteran scribes from the TV series are smart enough to know when they've reached too much of a good thing.
Using pig shit as a (literal) plot engine and containing full-frontal animated nudity (Bart's), The Simpsons Movie is too intelligent about lowbrow culture to be the lowbrow-culture smash of the summer. Not that it needs to be. The movie has an installed base of smart, rabid Simpsons fans, and it could easily be sequelized. The show could well run forever, and I'm sure Fox has plans for an all-Simpsons channel running 24/7. Which is enough to give franchise entertainment a good name. And who's the custodian of that franchise? Above Groening and Brooks, of course, is multi-billionaire Fox Network owner Rupert Murdoch (who once cameoed on the show as himself), a man who's often accused of being crass, unethical, and obsessed with money and power. Yet it's all those same qualities the TV show and movie satirize so unerringly. So if people are worried about Murdoch's inevitable acquisition of The Wall Street Journal, I have a suggestion for how he could shake up those fusty old op-ed pages with a new cartoon feature.