After 18 seasons, the longest-running sitcom on television has decided to take its act to the megaplex. And now that "The Simpsons Movie" is upon us, the occasion prompts an inevitable question. What would a movie accomplish in 87 minutes that the show -- this great, ingenious circus of subversion -- hasn't in more than 8,000?
It would be a stretch to call "The Simpsons Movie" more than a crisper, livelier-looking episode of the series. The change in mediums changes nothing. The show doesn't see a bigger screen and a longer running time as any kind of a challenge. Could it be that our standard for good movies is now lower than our standard for good television? "The Simpsons" certainly helped alter those dynamics: Its brilliance isn't just its shrewdness and audacity, it's that the show could be so brilliant with such economy. Tellingly, "The Simpsons Movie" is very good for the first 30 minutes.
The movie is not newly ambitious. It's not attempting to explain itself to the uninitiated. Except for the band Green Day, no one dies. No higher truths are revealed. It extends the series' continuum without reaching for the stratosphere. It is, in a sense, disposable, and the filmmakers seem fine with this. Eleven of the show's veteran writers are credited, and their script doesn't strain to reinvent or re-characterize the show. Directed by David Silverman and made with a sincere eco-mindedness, it merely localizes the old global catastrophe plot.
Homer adopts a pig. He fills a silo with its doodie and his own. (Even by his standards, Homer's idiocy reaches record highs.) He dumps the silo in Lake Springfield, which was already lethally toxic (it swallowed Green Day). Some poor pink squirrel jumps in and pops out a many-eyed monster -- it looks like a Surrealist wedding cake. Soon the government gets involved -- Arnold Schwarzenegger is the president and Albert Brooks makes a splendidly draconian head of the Environmental Protection Agency -- and Springfield is hilariously domed off to prevent disaster.
There is business to occupy the other Simpsons, too. Lisa falls for a fellow environmentalist. Bart finds himself torn between his father's unconditional abuse and the unconditional Christian kindness of Ned Flanders. And Marge's frustration with her husband and with Springfield's quarantining drives her to profanity. But the plot's burden is on Homer, whose responsibility for Springfield's ecological catastrophe is revealed, a development that wins the murderous scorn of the rest of the town. The family flees to Alaska. Needless to say, all the dysfunction will be righted. It's just another day with this family and this town.
While the movie allows for moments of comedic dead space, its asides are often funny. A sequence of Bart skateboarding naked through town cheekily mocks standards of nudity. A song Homer makes up for his new pet ("Spider-Pig") is set to the tune of one of the TV versions of "Spider-Man." It deserves to rival Rihanna's "Umbrella" as the song of the summer.
The regular voice cast is all here. The work of Dan Castellaneta, who's been doing Homer since "The Simpsons" played as brief interludes between sketches on "The Tracey Ullman Show," is still underappreciated. Because the animators have settled on a less than dynamic design strategy, much of what's winning and expressive about Homer comes from Castellaneta's vocal finesse. Julie Kavner finds new registers for Marge's husky whininess. In a speech she gives Homer before she leaves him to save Springfield, the cracks in her voice sound like real pain.
The impetus behind bringing the show to the movies doesn't seem financial or creative, really, just one of prerogative -- a test of disciples' loyalty. As Homer points out in the opening minutes, you'd have to be a moron to pay to watch this movie when you could watch the show at home for free.
That crass momentary put-down of the audience scared me, since one of the reasons people keep coming back to the show is that its makers don't thumb their noses at the viewer. Fans of the show (nerds, hipsters, people who can't find anything better to watch on Sundays at 8 p.m.), exult in the topicality, the free-associative asides (half of most episodes seem set within magnificent parentheses), and the enduring, elastic nature of the many relationships.
Its longevity should make "The Simpsons" seem past its cultural prime. But as long as there's a popular-political culture to skewer and American family dynamics to test, the show's creator, Matt Groening, and his staff will have a show. Catching "The Simpsons" several times after football last season, its laser sharpness brought a tear to my eye. "The Simpsons" is that really good neighborhood restaurant you never go to anymore because it's always been there. But whenever you show up you're embarrassed that you don't go more since it's so much better than where you've been eating. To that end, the movie is patio seating or a dining-room renovation, a gimmick to remind you to come back to the show after the World Series. Which is to say it's extremely belated.
At this point, "The Simpsons" is a show with nothing to prove. There's no chip on its shoulder. It has no case to make for itself. It can stand with "Monty Python" as a great, quotable universe of surrealism and farce. That the show hasn't sailed off into the seas of complacency after all these years is a miracle. But the movie feels a little complacent and stuck. When Trey Parker and Matt Stone made a movie of "South Park" -- 1999's "Bigger, Longer, Uncut" -- they expanded their flat, mean little cartoon world into a cynical, dimensional, exuberantly nasty rebuke to its detractors and the contradictions of popular culture. They reinvented their show for the movies and made a masterpiece.
If there's a problem with the "Simpsons" film, it's that it falls in too easily with one of the great defining traits of the show. On TV, "The Simpsons" magically reboots itself weekly. Locations survive destruction, and the characters withstand all psychological, physical damages. The show's absurdist nature is absolute and absolutely finite. At 8:30, the Etch-a-Sketch is shaken clean. Come back next week for fresh satire. In a different medium, that same principle is underwhelming. Regardless of the diminished premium we've been putting on movies lately relative to television, do we want movies that seem to basically erase themselves?