Springfield or Bust

Simpsons Movie has everything but a Wigsphere

Movie Guru

by Brad Case

The on-again, off-again plan to bring the longest-running half-hour prime-time show in television history to the silver screen is finally a reality.

The Simpsons Movie, an energetic 82-minute romp that's as comfortably familiar as any of the program's 400 classic episodes, is the combined effort of series creator Matt Groening, spiritual founder James L. Brooks and a team of 15 writers reunited from the show's 18-year run. Over two years in the making, the creative juggernaut evolved under their watchful eyes, diligently adapting the series's magic formula into a feature-film format. In Brooks' words, â“You can't just slap together four half-hour episodes and call it a movie.â”

The stakes were high in pleasing the series's rabid fandom, and the producers knew it. â“I've heard the real-life versions of Comic Book Guy,â” Groening laments. â“Everyone's got a different idea of the perfect Simpsons experience.â”

The efforts were not in vain. The piece crackles with a biting wit and an even sharper edge than usual. From the outset, in which everyman Homer Simpson rises from his theater seat to interrupt an elaborate â“Itchy and Scratchyâ” short, claiming, â“What a rip-off, paying to see something that you can watch for free at home!,â” the filmmakers obviously are delivering a preemptive nod to subdue audience skepticism.

This daunting challenge of creating a cinematic experience over and above the high standards already established on the small screen is intricately addressed. Most noticeable are the improved animation, detailed background layouts and complex scene expositions, all beautifully composed in Panavision.

The plotline, while a bit more ambitious in scale, thematically is classic Simpsons : Homer screws up and goes to extreme measures to make amends. But this time his dopey deed is way more reprehensible, and his quest to make good way more ominous than usual. In keeping with the show's tendency toward topical storylines, the faux pasâ"Homer soiling Lake Springfield with pig dungâ"causes an ecological catastrophe that has the Environmental Protection Agency quarantining Springfield under an impenetrable bio-dome. With his town doomed and his family ostracized, Homer's only hope is to right his wrong.

Homer's odyssey becomes a physical and spiritual search for redemption that serves to flesh out his dysfunctional relationship with son Bart, who is so fed up with his loser pop that he seriously considers abandoning him in favor of neighbor-diddly Ned Flanders.   When Bart seeks out Ned for fatherly advice, the born-again superdad not only pumps up the boy's ego, but concocts for him a to-die-for hot chocolate, in a sequence that simultaneously plays hilarious and poignant.

Though Homer is the film's protagonist, the rest of the clanâ"Marge, Lisa, Maggie and Grandpaâ"also play important roles, as do the multiple Springfield mainstays from Moe and Barney to Chief Wiggum and Cletis the slack-jawed yokel.

This critic would be remiss to not mention the core of vocal talents that helped create this phenomenon in the late '80s. In addition to voicing Homer and Bart respectively, Dan Castellaneta, and Nancy Cartwright consistently take on another 20 other characters between them. Yeardley Smith's Lisa and Julie Kavner's Marge provide the moral compass, heart and soul that have been bedrock of the franchise. Most of the remaining recurring characters are flawlessly handled by the versatile trio of Harry Shearer, Hank Azaria and Tress MacNeil.

The Simpsons Movie defines a watershed moment in a historically significant slice of pop culture. Just a silly cartoon, you say? Consider this: The series has probably spawned more scholarly exploration than any other contemporary pop-culture phenomenon of its era. Leaders of the clergy as well as professional sociologists have consistently weighed in on the merits of the show as a valid and insightful depiction of the modern family. If you don't believe it, check out The Simpsons and Philosophy; The D'oh of Homer , a collection of 20 Ph.D. essays analyzing the series's resonance with the human condition.

All this should be of no surprise to the minions who have followed the series religiously over the years. It has inspired celebrity participation from the likes of heads of state (British Prime Minister Tony Blair), hermit superstars (Elizabeth Taylor) and outright geniuses (quantum physics mastermind Stephen Hawking), who willingly lent their vocal talents to various episodes. The Simpsons Movie adds Tom Hanks, Albert Brooks and punk band Green Day to this star-studded lineage.

Over the past year, anticipation for the film has been stoked nicely by the FOX media machine, with clever trailers that have injected into the lexicon of grammar-school kids and white-collar workers alike the mantra: â“Spider pig, spider pig does whatever a spider pig doesâ.â” The cross-generational smirk that is shared by the series's diverse, ever-reaching demographic is proof that occasionally it is possible for art and commerce to not only be in sync, but to touch us all.

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Six Degreesâ

âof Dan Castellaneta? Ever heard of the actor? Didn't think so. Ever heard Dan Castellaneta? Most likely, you have. He's the voice of Homer Simpson, Krusty the Clown, Grampa, and a handful of other supporting characters in The Simpsons Movie .

Castellaneta has been a staple in the Simpsons' satirical empire since its uprising in 1989. And you'll catch his credit after dozens of other animated adventures. But 2006 saw a different side of Mr. C: his face. The Pursuit of Happyness stars Will Smith and his son, Jaden, as Chris Gardner and his son, Christopher. Castellaneta plays a bit part, Alan Frakesh, who is not only a human person, but an actual human person: Yes, this movie is based on the eponymous book, which is a true story.

In the film, Gardner the elder finds himself in San Francisco entering his 30s with no money, a dead-end sales job, and a hothead girlfriend named Linda (played by Thandie Newton), who's losing patience with her role as financial provider. Enter their 5-year-old son, whom Linda wants to move to New York. Gardner says, â“Peace out, but I'm keeping my child.â” (Well, he doesn't say it like that .)

Over the next hour or so, the Chris' endure eviction, homelessness and hunger. Papa Chris even does a night of jail time.

But endure they do. Chris lands a prized internship (and later, a job) with a fancy-schmancy stock brokerage, and we (the viewers) are assured that the American Dream is alive and well, and that anybody can become a multi-millionaire with hard work, perseverance and some sick Rubik's Cube skills, which, apparently, are necessary to demonstrate to potential employers one's unusually gifted mental dexterity.

Unsurprisingly, the real-life Gardner's autobiography is immensely more engaging than the film, as the man unveils all his un-family-friendly, un-blockbuster-worthy flaws, including the adulterous affair that produced Christopher and, later, a daughter. As a result, the story on the page is more heart-wrenching, more disturbing at times, and ultimately, even more uplifting than the cinematic version. â" Leah E. Willis


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