After yet another Homer (Castellaneta) inspired disaster involving his new best-friend Spider-Pig Springfield is declared an environmental disaster area and sealed in a glass dome as an example to all America.
Even in a mediocre episode of The Simpsons there is one great gag. Back in the classic era, the first ten seasons, say, they created jokes for the ages; comic writing with the kind of snap and sizzle of Woody Allen in the ‘60s or Neil Simon or Mel Brooks (all of whom have been satirised in yolk yellow). Beyond that, Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and the other one have warmly redefined our concept of the American family. It takes genius to do dumb so well. After 18 years of such consistency surely the next move for the Day-Glo dysfunctions of Homer and co. was a movie… Surely.
The Simpsons Movie has been ten yeas in the making. During this tricky decade, the one factor the crew of eleven writers (their finest) had trouble settling on is how a movie version of the half-hour Springfield spins would be different. After all, why buy a ticket for something you get ad infinitum on the box? Eighty minutes after Itchy nukes Scratchy on the moon (the literal opening salvo) you realise that the problem may have defeated them. The Movie is no more than a mediocre episode stretched like taffy till it splits. And there’s not one truly great gag to speak of.
How did something so light and confident become so lumbering and unsure of itself? Everyone is trying too hard and getting nowhere. Lamed, as the later episodes have been, by an overt political agenda, the film so bangs the drum for Al Gore’s eco-message it borders on polemic. Saving the planet may be vital, but not at the expense of Homer’s sublime buffoonery please. The series is at its best when satirising the intricacies of ordinary life — aim smaller, hit bigger.
With more time on their hands, everything seems to work against itself. There are odd pauses, mistimed punchlines — the lovely jazzy rhythms of the old episodes becoming stilted and soggy. Worse still, the characters are shadows of their old yellow selves. Homer, by necessity the brainless centre of the story, never properly reaches his true absurdist extremes. Bart is entirely lost, his storyline — weary of Homer’s shortcomings, he’s enticed to join the Flanders — neutering the arch prankster. Bart needy? Come on. Meanwhile Lisa falls in love (not explored), Marge despairs of her husband (Zzzz…) and Maggie… Actually, Maggie keeps her end of the deal. No one, excepting the title family, gets much of a look in, and the paltry attempts to notch them up are less cameos than momentary blips. In what sane universe does a Simpson movie give Mr. Burns merely two scenes?
There is also the stunning fact that, between eleven of surely the funniest writers in America, no one could come up with a good story. Springfield sealed in a dome is about it, but even then nothing is made of the town’s collapse into anarchy, while in not-breaking-news-at-all, Homer has to learn to appreciate his family. Again.
It is a depressing experience to rain on this particularly beloved parade. So massive is the series achievement, it’s like punching a best friend in the mush. In pop cultural terms Groening and team are artists, the animation equivalent of Martin Scorsese — imagine the likes of him delivering something so bereft of inspiration. You chuckle here and there, you enjoy the animation (given a bit more pep and computery dimension for the big screen), but the moment it takes off never comes. This is not the worst film of the summer, just the biggest waste. Then, perhaps that is the problem. The Simpsons never needed to be a movie.
A movie that takes something everyone loves, and makes it fizzier, sweeter and yet somehow blander.