December 31, 2008

The Simpsons Movie (2007)

Very few American sitcoms (in fact perhaps none) have had the degree of success as "The Simpsons", the animated show created by Matt Groening that since its debut as a series in 1989, has become not only one of the most influential TV shows ever made, but also an icon of modern pop-culture, and technically a reflection of Western society. Originally a series of shorts that were part of "The Tracey Ullman Show" that chronicled the lifestyle of a dysfunctional family (Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie Simpson), the shorts were soon adapted into a half-hour series and so the legend was born. Through the years, the Simpson family won fans around the world thanks to the sharp writing of its stories and its very special brand of satire. A movie was always in plans, but it seemed a dream that would never get materialized. Even when the quality of the scripts began to decay, the dream of a "Simpsons movie" was still there. And now, almost 20 years after the show debuted as a series, "The Simpsons Movie" was released.

Everything begins when rock band Green Day are killed at an accident caused by the pollution in Lake Springfield, which prompts Lisa Simpson (Yeardley Smith) to convince the town to clean the lake. The lake gets considerably cleaner, but a distracted Homer Simpson (Dan Castellaneta) throws the feces of his adopted pig into the lake, with terrible environmental results. Noticing this, Russ Cargill (Albert Brooks), head of the Environmental Protection Agency, manipulates President Schwarzenegger (Harry Shearer) to use an unorthodox measure to keep Springfield's pollution contained: to enclose the town in a large glass dome. When Homer is found responsible for the town's doom, the townspeople decide to lynch him, but the Simpsons manage to escape from the dome and head to Alaska. Out of the dome, the family discovers plans to completely destroy Springfield, so Marge (Julie Kavner) and the kids decide to return and try to save it. Homer is against the idea, so Marge is forced to leave him behind. Abandoned, Homer will have to decide what to do to save himself.

"The Simpsons Movie" had been in development for several years, as this wasn't the first attempt to make a movie about the poplar yellow family. The screenplay that eventually became "The Simpsons Movie" began as an idea by Groening that he shared to the team of writers assembled for the movie. Along Groening, 10 writers from previous seasons of "The Simpsons" joined this team, including names such as James L. Brooks, Ian Maxtone-Graham, Mike Scully, Matt Selman and Jon Vitti among others, in hopes of the recapturing the spirit from the "classic" seasons of the show. And more or less they got it right, as the film is certainly an improvement over the current state of the TV series. Stretching the TV format to film, "The Simpsons Movie" has a bit more focus on the plot than on the characters, as it must sustain a narrative beyond the half-hour episode; nevertheless, the whole thing is filled with great comedy that manages to retain the same acid, ironic humor that made the TV series such a cherished show.

Starting as an animator for the first "Simpsons" shorts, director David Silverman has been with the family since the very beginning. Now that he's made himself a career as a filmmaker (with 2000's "The Road to El Dorado" and 2001's "Monsters, Inc." in his resumé), Silverman returns to Springfield to direct the film. Responsible for several of the series' best episodes, Silverman adds to the film an energy that seems to be missing in the later seasons, as well as that care for characterization that was a key factor in his days as a director for the show. As written above, the screenplay focuses a lot more on the story than on characters, but Silverman wisely manages to give them their proper place as he seems to be aware that in the end, it's neither the plot nor the jokes what makes "The Simpsons" great, but the humanity of the characters, and the power of their emotions. For example, in some scenes, Silverman makes the love in the relationship between Homer and Marge more than believable. He makes it almost real.

As in the TV show, the voice cast is really something special, taking the art of voice acting to whole new levels. The familiar voices of Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright, Yeardley Smith, Hank Azaria, and Harry Shearer are back and showcase the best of their talents in the film. Kavner specially is one special actress, as her performance as Marge Simpson in the film is easily her best job as TV's favorite mom to date. It's really amazing how emotional her performance gets and how natural it seems for her to become Marge. Same could be said of Castellaneta as Homer although to be honest, Kavner overshadows everyone else. The multiple talents of Azaria and Shearer are still at their best, although I found that roles of their characters weren't as big as they should. Albert Brooks is back as another super villain, and once again his presence is more than welcome in the film. As in the show, there are several guest stars that make cameo appearances in the film, like Green Day or Tom Hanks, but fortunately, they don't steal the focus of the film.

Unfortunately, "The Simpsons Movie" is not without its flaws, and a couple of them are pretty bothersome. The first and most notorious is perhaps the expected detail in every adaptation from a TV show: it can't help but being nothing more than an extended episode. Sure, the plot is bigger and more on the narrative of a film, but it's still one big "The Simpsons" episode. Fortunately, it's one good big episode, but those expecting something beyond the usual will be disappointed. And this is related to the second fatal flaw: the unavoidable feeling that a movie as expected as this should had been precisely more than a big, extended episode. "The Simpsons" was breakthrough television when it came out, and even today it's still breakthrough from time to time, so its arrival to the big screen should had been one big event, one unrepeatable chance of taking "The Simpsons" style of comedy to a whole new level. And it seems that the writers decided to play safe and deliver the familiar. They did it really great, but it wasn't the big event it could had been.

And in my opinion, it's that feeling of lost potential what prevents "The Simpsons" from being a masterpiece. It's not a bad film by any means, it is in fact a great comedy, and one that truly recaptures that classic style of "The Simpsons" early years; but it could had been something spectacular, something outstanding, a real classic. Perhaps this is just me nitpicking, but I can't help but feel that "The Simpsons Movie" could had been an unforgettable journey if the makers of the film had dared to break the rules and go beyond what was achieved by the legendary TV show. In the end, "The Simpsons Movie" is a remarkable comedy, and one that no fan of the TV show should miss. But it could had been more. Much more.


Buy "The Simpsons Movie" (2007)

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