Retrospecticus: How The Simpsons Movie nails the movie part

Welcome to the first in a new weekly column, Retrospecticus, where I look back at a movie (and occasionally other media) celebrating its 10 year anniversary. I’m doing this in no small part to examine the remarkable run between October 2007 and January 2009. There’s a lot of great art that deserves attention. So without further ado, a look at the film version of the show that gave the column its name!

In early 2007, Reno 911: Miami hit theaters with a relative thud. It was an only sporadically funny assortment of gags that made a number of mistakes common when tv shows jump to the big screen. It was bloated. It was filled with cameos though only one–Dwayne Johnson has to get a laugh–landed. The plot was high stakes which felt grating given the source material’s low stakes. It rehashed gag after gag from the show. Perhaps most crucially, the film took the characters out of their usual world, ignoring that the very random world of Reno was the show’s appeal.

All of these mistakes can be found time and time again in adaptations ranging from dreck like Jetsons: The Movie to even good adaptations like The X-Files: Fight the Future. There’s a good reason for this. When a show makes the leap but keeps its continuity intact, it has to serve two masters. It’s got to make fans who show up opening night happy while trying to win over new fans. This is why Star Trek: The Motion Picture is such a baffling mess. It wanted to be Star Wars AND Star Trek.

Can this ever be done right? Definitely. Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan threw away trying to appeal to the effects crowd and settled on a story even those who hadn’t seen Space Seed would grasp. Batman: The Movie was a deliriously satisfying lift of the show as was possibly the greatest translation, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. The Naked Gun is far better known than Police Squad in one of the ultimate examples.

Then there’s today’s subject, The Simpsons Movie. Springfield’s finest waited 17 years to make the leap, though such a move was rumbled for an eternity. The beloved Kamp Krusty ep was even at one time considered as the plot. It took years of work but at long last in the summer of 2007, the show finally reached the big screen. Thankfully, every one of those years shows because this thing is polished like a jewel.

The Simpsons Movie is a 90 minute example of everything the show does right. It’s a nonstop machine of gags with every corner of the frame filled with something to look at. It’s bright, colorful summer fun. But most importantly, it’s a highly satisfying movie version of the show.

Admittedly, the show benefits heavily from having some of the “mistakes” other leaps suffer from built into the show. Guest stars have been a part of the show from the beginning. High stakes are a constant. The show travels all the time. In other words, The Simpsons lives on movie mode. It just finally got to prove it.

Yet even with that, it’s striking how smooth the translation feels. The plot focuses on Springfield being sealed under a glass dome after Homer causes an environmental catastrophe. It’s a plot that feels like a film plot. It’s a single, clear story with the protagonist (Homer) given an active role as both instigator of the story and ultimately hero. That’s a big difference between this and such works as the Futurama movies or even worse: Stewie Griffin: The Untold Story, which are transparently three episodes welded together badly. This is indeed a movie.

It’s one that correctly grounds itself in its characters. The film is largely Homer centered and that’s a great idea. Homer Simpson is a dolt who often does thoughtless things but he’s also a profoundly loving man who does know what the right thing to do is. That said, Marge, Lisa, and the protagonist were the film made in 1993 Bart all get satisfying plot threads which connect to the central story. It’s a well balanced script that draws laughs from character before anything else.

It feels absolutely no need to placate newcomers either. You don’t know who Ralph Wiggum is? Tough. The movie giddily plays to preexisting fans with the kind of boldness that only a truly iconic franchise can. It rightly assumes we all know this world because come on, we do. It’s not an arcane premise or anything but there’s no stopping to reiterate what longtime viewers already know and doesn’t tell a plot we’ve already seen. It fits nicely into the show that way.

That said, we do get something more for our money than just a long episode of the show. Money was put into the animation and it’s a really nice looking film. Hans Zimmer does a solid score. There is a quick Tom Hanks cameo that’s hysterical rather than distracting. Oh and there’s one gag that earns the film the PG-13, a shot of Bart Simpson’s penis that mocks the Austin Powers tradition of covering nudity as well as the show’s own episode where Homer and Marge get addicted to public sex and run around Springfield naked. (Wow this show didn’t have far to stretch the boundaries…)

But in the end The Simpsons Movie works because it does serve two masters. It’s a satisfying episode of the show but it doesn’t feel out of place in a theater. It’s not a grand classic of comedy but revisiting it for this column, I can’t help but feel like it might be a bit underrated. Few comedies were this satisfying this year.

Next Week: How The King of Kong dilutes documentaries.

Oh and yeah, what about South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut? It’s the big one I left out. I kinda don’t like it. I know I’m known for my apostasy from the show but I didn’t like it when I was an avid fan. It’s too damned much. Too vulgar, too unpleasant, too loud. Just proof limits are good.

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