As I write this, two days after its release, The Simpsons Movie has grossed over $72 million and made it to #43 on the Internet Movie Database’s Top 250 list as determined by voters. That answers the question of whether Matt Groening’s acerbic creation is still relevant and popular. Another question is whether it’s still funny, and it’s been said in muted grumbles (and sometimes not so muted) that The Simpsons is at least seven years past its sell-by date. I can’t verify this personally; after the first couple of years, I wandered away from the show, though I can attest that two of the best episodes emerged in 1997 (“In Marge We Trust,” featuring Mr. Sparkle) and 1998 (“Homer’s Phobia,” the John Waters episode).
In any event, after seventeen years, the dysfunctional Simpsons family — clueless Homer (Dan Castellaneta), long-suffering Marge (Julie Kavner), bratty Bart (Nancy Cartwright), intellectual Lisa (Yeardley Smith), and pacifier-addicted Maggie, along with several billion supporting characters — crashes into the multiplex. It says something that the mere mention of the names brings each character into abrupt, sharp focus, with all their flaws and merits intact; Groening and producer James L. Brooks put down a rock-solid foundation upon which to build the longest-lasting sitcom of all time, scores of merchandise, several albums and comic books, and now the major motion picture. Is it funny? I enjoyed it without actually laughing all that much. Certainly nothing in the film is as crazily inspired as Mr. Sparkle; I can remember “I am disrespectful to dirt” after a decade, whereas I’d be hard put to quote much from the movie mere hours after getting home.
The Simpsons Movie begins as an extended Lisa episode — she undertakes a one-girl effort to save Lake Springfield from pollution — and Lisa episodes are notoriously well-meaning and unpopular among many fans. Then the movie flips into a Homer episode, as the befuddled patriarch adopts a pig, whose voluminous leavings contaminate the lake and get the entire town isolated under a dome (under the evil eye of an EPA chief voiced deftly by longtime Simpsons utility player Albert Brooks). The writers (eleven are credited) take shots at global-warming deniers as well as tweaking An Inconvenient Truth, and there’s some sobering stuff about mob mentality, but mostly the film ends up being character-driven — and nicely character-driven at that, though nothing much that die-hards haven’t seen before. Ultimately it’s a Marge episode, which is all to the good.
And what of Bart, prince of a thousand t-shirts? Perhaps if the movie had been rushed into production in the early years of The Simpsons’ wild crossover popularity, Fox might’ve pressured Groening et al to crank out The Bart Movie. Here, Bart has the movie’s heavyweight sight gag — naked skateboarding, with a long run of precisely timed obstacles obscuring his genitalia from the camera — but he’s just another team player, with a Plot B storyline that has him looking to sappy neighbor Ned Flanders as a father figure when Homer disappoints him one time too many. It’s not a particularly funny narrative thread, except for a flashback to Homer taking Bart fishing, but it does add heart to the proceedings. It’s here that we sense that, as Lisa is a miniature conscientious Marge, Bart may realize he’s a dimwitted chip off the old block, and does he really want to grow up to be Homer?
It’s worth noting that the first major film based on a TV show was Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and Trekkies only had to wait ten years for their big-screen fulfillment, yet the enormous, impassioned expectations they brought to that first film would’ve torpedoed an Orson Welles film from an original script by Shakespeare. It’s possible that the less you wanted or cared about a Simpsons movie, the more you’ll enjoy The Simpsons Movie: it’s not bigger than the show, it’s 400 episodes in microcosm, reminding on-again-off-again fans what made the thing a phenomenon and an institution in the first place. It works nicely as both an introduction and a celebration. As for the one-word question voiced by one of the Simpsons during the end credits: Yes, please.