The Simpsons Movie
In Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, a character played by Michael Palin expresses the concern that people aren't wearing enough hats. In response a character played by Terry Jones says, "What do you mean 'enough'? Enough for what purpose?"
And now, with The Simpsons Movie, you'll find many reviews stating (as many previews indeed stated) that Matt Groening waited too long to bring the most recognizable television family on the planet to the big screen. So let's take a page from Jones' character and call this into question. Too long for what, exactly?
Too long for the film to be profitable? Absolutely not. Even without all the hype, advertising and secrecy surrounding the film, The Simpsons has never had any problem being profitable.
Too long to interest the fans? Again, this isn't really a concern. Thanks in large part to the TV-DVD revolution, even Simpsons fans who haven't enjoyed new episodes of the show for years are still reveling in their enthusiasm for the classic years, and a feature-length installment by a good deal of the same writers who assembled those wonderful early seasons is, to put it lightly, a very exciting prospect indeed.
Too long to be any good? Well, this is the most likely situation...after all, I haven't seen much of the recent Simpsons episodes, and I wouldn't say I'd stand up for the quality of many of those recent episodes that I have seen...but it's important to remember that it's not the formula of the show that's run dry--it's the writing. There's no reason Homer can't be an interesting character after all these years. There's no end of trouble for Bart to cause and no shortage of global issues for Lisa to tackle. And characters such as Ned Flanders, Chief Wiggum, Monty Burns, Dr. Nick, Moe, Comic Book Guy and Principal Skinner are all caricatures of social "types" that are as cleverly-observed now as they ever were.
It's just that...well...the writers don't seem to realize that anymore, and they are rarely used to their full advantage.
This movie is not "too late" for anything. It's just that you have to try hard not to fault it for the sins of the television series. After all, this film, with one central story to deal with and over a hundred rewrites behind it, had the leisure to devote as much time to getting things absolutely perfect as was needed. It was an exercise in perfectionism, and if anything was going to prove that The Simpsons still had any life left in it whatsoever, it'd be this film--this film into which a bevy of classic episode writers invested their all.
The question is, was it successful. The answer, I report with relief, is yes. But a qualified yes.
The absolute worst thing you can do is go into this movie with a mental list of all of your favorite Simpsons moments. You will be disappointed, full-stop. This isn't Three Men and a Comic Book on the big screen. This isn't Homer's Enemy: The Movie. This is a movie that, somewhat hypocritically, expects you to be full aware of the history of the show, but doesn't want to have to stand up against it in a test of strength. And, okay, it's tough to watch without comparing it to whatever episode it was that made you move from being a fan of the show to being in love with the show, but, if you can separate the two, you're in for a treat.
The plot was kept under strict secrecy until the very premiere of the movie, and so, in the spirit of such (coupled with the fact that every other review will itemize the plot-points for you and tripled with the fact that the plot is hardly important at all) I'll decline to give you a summary. That's not what you're after, anyway. You want to know if it was good. And, Comic Book Guy, you want to know what wasn't so good.
There's a lot of good in this movie, but, for each good point, there seems to be a slight negative aspect to dovetail it.
Basically, almost every major minor character gets some face-time...which is good, because everyone's got a favorite non-Simpson Springfielder. And, essentially, they're all there.
The downside? Not all of them are used to their potential. While some of the Springfieldians are as hilarious as they've ever been (Moe and Cheif Wiggum both come to mind immediately, and Martin Prince gets easily his best scene yet) others are sold disastrously short (Milhouse and Comic Book Guy are both assortments of missed opportunities, and Mr. Burns only really gets one good line...and it's during the credits).
We do get a minor character elevated to significant supporting status, which was one of the things the television show did so well. Some of my favorite episodes revolve around Mr. Burns, Wiggum, the VanHoutens...The Simpsons was, for a very long time, consistently masterful in fleshing background faces and one-joke characters into very real, sympathetic characters with a genuine, unique personality. In the film we get that with Ned Flanders.
The downside? Well, Flanders doesn't really get many good lines. And while the emotional nature of his and Bart's story sort of allows for that, it's very disappointing when you realize how great some of the other supporting characters are being in this film...and you'll start to wish they'd assigned the screen-time to someone else instead.
The voice actors are all on top form, for the most part, especially Yeardley Smith as Lisa...who managed to be both hilariously cute and heart-breakingly frustrated at various points in the film. Since Yeardley only ever voices one character for the show it's easy to forget just how much range she really has.
The downside? Dr. Hibbert only has one line in the film, and it sounds...off. It almost sounds like a fan doing a Dr. Hibbert impersonation. (Was this a contest winner or something?) Also, Julie Kavner seems to forget entirely how to sound like Marge in what should be the emotional turning-point of the film. I do get the feeling she was intentionally using the voice in a different way as a manner of conveying emotion (you'll know it when you see/hear it) but I have to admit I don't think it was a very wise choice.
The emotional aspect of the film leads me to another compliment: there was in fact an emotional aspect of the film. I want each one of you to think back to the last Simpsons episode that made you cry. Now, each one of you will have your own answer, but I can guarantee they're all from the show's first three seasons or so. Yes, what's been missing from the show for God knows how long has finally been restored. Is any of it as touching as Homer's last day alive in One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish? Is any of it as painful as Bart failing his history test at the end of Bart Gets an F? Is any of it as emotionally triumphant as the hand-clasping finale of When Flanders Failed? Nope. But it doesn't have to be. It's enough to see the emotion...to feel the emotion...and to believe in the emotion. Because, I will be honest, Homer floating away, face-down, on that heart-shaped ice floe hit me pretty hard. In fact, it hit me right where the show last hit me around 1995 or so. It was a gorgeous, well-earned moment that deserves very much to be a part of Simpsons history.
The downside? Well, the Bart/Flanders thing is sort of cast away at the end without any real resolution, but it's done very much in the spirit of both characters that it's hard to fault it. So let's just say this one doesn't really have a downside.
Oh, and a certain governor of California serves as President of the United States of America in this film. (Not saying who because I don't want to spoil the surprise...!) Which is a funny idea but not so well executed. In fact, since he's drawn and acted exactly like Ranier Wolfecastle, why didn't they just name the character President Wolfecastle? It would have been an obvious enough joke on Arnold that way and it would have put a potentially interesting spin on the unseen political career of the former star of McBain. Well...it might be an incomprehensible decision, but at least it's not an overtly bad one.
And, in fairness, there are no overtly bad decisions in this film. You might dislike a few things. I did, too. You might not walk out of it thinking it's the best possible Simpsons movie imaginable. That's okay. But take a moment to consider all of the things that could possibly have gone wrong with this film. It won't take you long to compile a list of a few hundred things they could have done that would have bugged you until the day you die. (The Principal and the Pauper, deleting Hans Moleman from Brother From Another Series, ending so many episodes just by "killing off" the new-character-of-the-week, bringing Frank Grimes back as a junior...the list goes on.)
There's none of that here. The things this movie gets wrong are minor. Its sins are passive rather than active. It's a good, ostensibly solid comic film populated by some of the greatest comic characters ever to come out of...well...anywhere. It's a film that appreciates its heritage, and all but acknowledges that the past is the past.
And you know what? That's okay. Because the Simpson family can still make us laugh. It can still make us think back to happier times. And it's more than willing to share them with us all over again.
I won't say it's great, but I will say that it's everything I was worried it wouldn't be.