There was a time when it seemed like every kid in America was wearing a Bart Simpson tee shirt. After twenty years and over 400 episodes, the TV show The Simpsons has finally seen a steep decline in viewership, if not quality. The theatrical release of The Simpsons Movie is, therefore, a marketing shot in the arm, which, last week, paid off in a $71 million opening weekend. But as Homer himself says at the beginning of the film, "Why should we pay good money to see something we can get on TV for free?" Actually, there's plenty of reason.
The movie is a gift to fans and the talented voice actors who have stuck with the same basically static characters for so many years. Each of the Simpsons is at last granted an epiphany. Bart, who worships his father, finally realizes that slovenly Homer is possibly the worst dad on the planet. He begins to gravitate to neighbor Ned Flanders, he of the lisp and the sweater vests and the Evangelical Christian bent. Flanders, who is a good man in addition to being a hopeless square, feels for the sad little boy, and leaves a cup of cocoa on the window sill for him.
Here's what happens to the cocoa. Flanders adds whipped cream. Then shaves on some nutmeg. Then adds a marshmallow. Then he takes out a butane grill starter and toasts the marshmallow. You can almost hear that roomful of writers - the most talented stable since the days of the old Hollywood writing pool egging each other on. In this, the film resembles a borscht belt comedy like the Zucker brothers movies or Mel Brooks films, piling gag on gag like that cup of cocoa.
But I think the key to the success of The Simpsons is that it's a true cartoon. We need to make a distinction between animated films, like those of Pixar and Disney, and cartoons, which grew out of a tradition in newspapers, and are often hotly political. "I'm afraid you've gone mad with power, sir," says an underling to the megolomaniacal head of the EPA, Russ Cargill (Albert Brooks). "Of course I have," he says. "Ever gone mad without power? No one listens to you."
There's many a thumb-in-the-eye to the U.S. government and the religious right in The Simpsons Movie . If your values are conservative, and you have trouble laughing at yourself, you should see something else, because this is a film with an agenda. But for the rest of us, series creator and cartoonist Matt Groening, producer James L. Brooks, and their writing team provide gags here that have the zing only a cartoon can bring. I can't resist giving one example.
Russ Cargill has ordered a giant glass dome to be lowered over the town of Springfield. Now, picture this: a church sits side by side with a bar. Fearing the end of the world, the occupants of both buildings empty onto the street. They look up, see the dome, scream - and then switch buildings.
Cartoons are, at heart, a sort of revenge of the nerds. In the film, a kid, his arm being twisted by a bully, says, "Okay, I'll say it! Global warming is a myth! It needs more study!" The bully hits him anyway: "That's for not sticking to your principles." Finally, the kid can't take it any more, and in a fit of rage, cleans the bully's clock. "Wow, this feels great!" he says. "I see why you do it!" Matt Gorening has come a very long way from drawing bitterly disaffected doodles in the margins during algebra class. Iit's worth eight bucks to share the last laugh.
Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.