It has been eighteen years since America’s ultimate nuclear family introduced themselves to the television-watching world. Their popularity and critical favour have waffled in waves over the near-two-decade span of the series’ life, but they have also become pop culture icons and a source of constant comfort and laughter through widespread syndication and DVD sales. And so the question I’ve heard tossed around the most leading up to the release of their first foray in the land of the big screen is why did they wait so darn long to get here? The reason doesn’t matter really; it’s the sense of entitlement Simpson fans have regarding the series and these characters that is somewhat frightful in its level of expectation. (Although if you’re interested to know, series creator Matt Groening and creative mainstay, James L. Brooks, wanted to place all the focus necessary on perfecting the television series without having anything take away from that. When they finally decided to go forward, close to the turn of the century, there were disputes over final script approval.) The pressure alone to deliver a hilarious feature that will appease the fans, the masses and the studio execs alike would be enough reason for me to never consider making it. Yet “The Simpsons Movie” is finally here and from the moment little Ralph Wiggum pops out of the 20th Century Fox tag to trumpet triumphantly with the tune we all know well, it is clear that the whole “Simpsons” clan is happy to have arrived. As someone who would subscribe to a 24-hour “Simpsons” channel if one existed, I am just as happy to see them too.
The “Simpsons” folks know this is big. They almost seem to acknowledge it right away when the film opens with the biggest “Itchy & Scratchy” cartoon ever created. Itchy the mouse and Scratchy the cat get on about their usual, violent antics, but they do so while taking the first steps on the moon. “The Simpsons Movie” is one small step for Springfield and one giant leap for television animated series everywhere. What does a leap of this size entail exactly? Rather than string four episodes together, “Simpsons” creators opted to tell a story that was too big to encompass on a small screen. In doing so, there are both elements lost and gained. The expansion means longer stretches between punch lines, which can be frustrating at first, as you want director, David Silverman (a one-time regular director of the series and former creative player at Pixar) to pick up the pace. Also, the story itself is much more linear than most of the television episodes that find Homer & company starting in one place and ending up somewhere entirely unexpected by episode’s end. (A recent example would be beginning with weaning Maggie off her pacifier, which leads to Homer taking sleeping pills, which finds him causing injury to all of Springfield’s fire department and ultimately ending with corruption in volunteer fire fighter work.) The movie follows the Simpson family as they once again find themselves the target of all of Springfield’s animosity after Homer commits a selfish blunder to eclipse the hundreds of blunders that came before that. Once the film finds its pace though and adjusts to its newfound size and stature, or perhaps once this fan boy became accustomed to the grandeur of it all, the laughs roll out rapidly. It may be mostly tame but it is also riotous and faithful.
A bigger screen means an opportunity to take some of the Simpson characters further than they have ever been. (It also means some characters don’t get any spoken screen time – sorry Patty and Selma.) Lisa meets a boy who transforms her into the giddy girl she’s repressed so many times before. Marge finds an assertive voice that elevates her above the doormat status she all too often assumes. One of the more prominent storylines, which I’m carefully trying to avoid being specific about for those of you who are trying to go in to the movie as clear as possible, finds Bart questioning what his life would be like if he had a father figure who wasn’t such an impulsive goof all the time. In one of the movie’s greatest achievements, it breathes new life and depth into characters that have spent almost two decades trying to remain the same. The one constant that needs to remain that way to avoid throwing the world order out of alignment is, of course, Homer. As Homer is accustomed to making monumental mistakes and learning lessons from those mistakes shortly afterward, his movie mistakes are nothing new for him. And like usual, he will see the error of his ways and make many more mistakes by the time a sequel hits.
“The Simpsons Movie” is a rare, successful experiment in defying expectation and pressure to become a film that honours its origins while moving forward at the same time. As the town of Springfield breeds a self contained awareness that requires more than just a casual glance to appreciate fully, I’m not sure how well “The Simpsons Movie” will play outside of its fan base. That said, anyone who has had the fortune to spend any amount of time with the people of Springfield since 1989, will find their first feature to be filled with a humoured familiarity that serves as a reminder for how they’ve been able to stick around for so long. And now that the my Mac widget that has been counting down the days until “The Simpsons Movie” has finally run its course, I can rest easy knowing that all my expectations were met and it probably won’t be quite as long until the Simpsons find themselves on the big screen again.
Review by Joseph Bélanger