Friday, July 27, 2007

Review - The Simpsons Movie

No film released this year - perhaps no film ever released - has as much to live up to as The Simpsons Movie. Matt Groening's ingenious creation has, at its best, delivered some of the funniest, smartest and most satisfying programming you'll ever see on television. Its characters have become icons, and the show has become the spiritual father to South Park, King of the Hill, Family Guy and any other animated series from the past two decades. But none of these shows - or any live-action counterpart - has managed to come close to the benchmark set by The Simpsons at its peak. No other show has struck such a perfect balance between classic visual and verbal gags, touching sentiment and incisive satire. When The Simpsons found that balance, which it did with awe-inspiring frequency, the result was a 22-minute work of art.

But has
The Simpsons Movie come too late? There's no denying the fact that the show is not what it once was. The consistent quality evident in its glorious golden period is a thing of the past, with the more recent episodes tending to jettison character-driven storylines in favour of crasser jokes, wackier antics, and lazy stunt cameos from celebrities. More importantly, the show seems to have lost the beating heart which was once its driving force.

So I have been looking forward to the release of
The Simpsons Movie with equal parts excitement and dread; desperately willing the film to succeed while secretly fearing the worst. My anticipation has been exacerbated by the impressively tight veil of secrecy Fox has shrouded the picture in, and I can't remember the last time I had such a tingly sense of excitement as I sat down to watch a major studio's summer offering. After all that it comes as something of a relief to say The Simpsons Movie is... well... it's OK. It's not as good as classic Simpsons, but it's a lot better than the show's recent standard. It's not as great as it should be, but it's nowhere near as bad as it might have been.

It certainly is a faintly surreal experience to watch these familiar characters in such an expanded form, though. Perhaps this is why it took me a while to really settle into the film, or perhaps it's that
The Simpsons Movie seems to have a spot of difficulty settling into its larger surroundings. After Ralph Wiggum has sung along to the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare (a neat touch), we are whisked off to the moon for an Itchy & Scratchy short. This is interrupted by Homer standing up in a packed cinema to call us "suckers" for paying to see something which is free on TV, and then the slightly modified opening credits begin, before the picture finally settles down in Springfield where Green Day are performing a concert from a floating stage in the city's heavily-polluted lake.

It's a cluttered and unfocused opening, but everything eases into a more comfortable pace thereafter, and the opening half-hour of
The Simpsons Movie is the film's best. Homer adopts a pig, Bart rides naked through the streets of Springfield on a skateboard (a brilliantly conceived sequence), Grandpa Abe has a religious experience, and Lisa falls in love with an Irish eco-warrior - who is most definitely not Bono's son. This is all great stuff, full of perfectly timed zingers and great sight gags, and when the plot eventually kicks in it seems to hold promise. The Simpsons Movie's narrative springs from Homer doing something irretrievably stupid - quelle surprise! - but in this case it's an act of stupidity which turns Springfield into an ecological disaster zone. The US Government, led by President Schwarzenegger (what happened to Rainier Wolfcastle?), decides the best course of action is to seal the city off from the rest of the world immediately, by placing a giant dome over its inhabitants.

The events occurring from this situation see the film's plotting growing increasingly haphazard. The Simpsons find themselves on the outside of the dome, fleeing from the authorities, while the rest of the city's population remains on the inside. Choosing to disconnect the Simpson clan from the place they have called home for 18 years feels like a gross error of judgment on the part of the filmmakers. The vast and hugely entertaining supporting cast of characters has long been one of
The Simpsons' greatest assets, and I was disappointed to see the family heading off into the distance for their own private adventures instead of interacting with their neighbours in the classic manner. The film relocates to Alaska for a large chunk of its middle section, only offering us the occasional vignette of life under the Springfield dome. This means a few of my favourite Simpsons regulars are little more than silent bystanders - the great Mr Burns is criminally underused - although Chief Wiggum gets a big laugh in every one of his appearances.

This slight lull in the centre of the picture also reveals the storyline's shortcomings, as it becomes clear that there really isn't enough narrative depth here to sustain a feature film, even one clocking in at less than ninety minutes. An astonishing eleven writers have been credited with
The Simpsons Movie's screenplay - including such stalwarts as Groening, James L Brooks, George Meyer and Mike Scully (what a shame they couldn't tempt Brad Bird back to the writers' room) - but it's really just a collection of old plotlines and themes rehashed into a longer form, which I suppose might be inevitable when the show has already explored every aspect of its world over the past two decades. The hit rate of the jokes also becomes a lot more inconsistent in the second half, and many sequences just don't work at all - such as a faux-Disney bedroom scene featuring woodland animals, or the fantasy sequence which enables Homer's epiphany.

The Simpsons Movie works more often than not, though. The animation is excellent, being given subtle new dimensions for its new medium, the cast are uniformly perfect for their roles (naturally), and it made me laugh a lot. Perhaps it's simply the weight of great expectations which is behind the niggling sense of dissatisfaction the film ultimately left me with, but I do feel there's something missing here which even the action-packed and supremely well-staged finale couldn't compensate for. The Simpsons Movie is a perfectly decent film; but despite all of the fine jokes on show, the only scene to really stay with me is a tender and genuinely moving interlude which sees Homer watching a video of his wedding day as his marriage threatens to fall apart. Julie Kavner's quivering vocalisation of Marge's disappointment and regret is the one moment in the whole picture which matches the subtlety and humanity the show regularly achieved at its very best. But it's only one moment, and that's not really enough.