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Monday, January 26, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 10.0° F  Fair
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American Idiot
Homer contaminates Springfield in The Simpsons Movie
The family takes refuge in a treehouse of horror.
The family takes refuge in a treehouse of horror.

With 400 episodes (and counting) spread over 18 years, The Simpsons has gone from filler material on The Tracey Ullman Show to a hit series of its own, then became a cultural phenomenon and is now settling into legendary status, an American institution. Whole books are written about it, as are academic papers with titles like "'Are We There Yet?': Searching for Springfield and the Simpsons' Rhetoric of Omnitopia." And no less than the Oxford English Dictionary has seen fit to include "d'oh" as part of the lexicon. But it was Time magazine, in 1999, that turned Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie into the pop-culture equivalent of Mount Rushmore when it named The Simpsons the best TV show of all time. Take that, Lucy Ricardo.

It so happens that 1999 was about when I left Springfield for the snowy slopes of South Park. We could debate all night over whether The Simpsons has gone downhill, but one thing I've noticed, as the show finally made its leap from the small to the big screen, is that it tends to be recognized these days less for its originality than for its longevity. It's revered more than it's feared, whereas South Park is arguably the reverse. At any rate, I wouldn't want to be sitting in that writers' room, trying to come up with something new for Homer to screw up. And you can sense the fatigue in the title itself, The Simpsons Movie, which seems like what the writers (all 11 of them) came up with after racking their brains to come up with something/anything they hadn't come up with 400 times before.

But the title turns out to be yet one more instance of the show reaching for more by appearing to settle for less. And just in case we don't get the point, the movie opens with Homer, having just watched a cinematic version of Itchy and Scratchy in a theater with Marge and the kids, looking straight out at us and saying, "I can't believe we're paying for something we can watch on TV for free." My sentiments exactly, although a preview of the upcoming Alvin and the Chipmunks movie left me feeling utterly relieved that at least The Simpsons is a show I don't mind seeing again, free or otherwise. And by having Homer unconsciously break the fourth wall (everything he does is unconscious), the filmmakers are acknowledging that we know what they're up against. Or, as I jotted in my notepad: Just don't suck.

I'm here to tell you, The Simpsons Movie doesn't suck. In fact, I'd say it ranks right up there with the average good episode, albeit four times as long and largely (but not entirely) free of commercial interruptions. Perhaps taking its cues from Al Gore's power-point presentation, An Inconvenient Truth, the movie has landed on an environmental theme, meanwhile putting America's favorite nuclear family (Homer even works at a nuclear power plant) through a stress test that would have left Ozzie and Harriet on Divorce Court. It seems that Homer has fallen head-over-heels, in a fatherly kind of way, for a pig. This not only makes Bart uncharacteristically jealous, it fills the backyard with pig poop, a situation that Homer remedies by illegally dumping the dumplings into Lake Springfield.

Apparently, Homer isn't the only one who's been using Lake Springfield as a toilet bowl, but Homer's is the kerplunk that causes a major ecological disaster, leading to an assault by EPA SWAT teams and the dropping of an enormous glass dome over the entire city. Springfield is now a snow globe without the snow, and for Marge this is the absolutely last final straw - kaput, finito, sayonara. Meanwhile, the orphaned Bart has been spending some quality time with Ned Flanders, a Christian so nice he really belongs on a cross somewhere. And Lisa, whose own power-point presentation, An Irritable Truth, went over like a ton of spent fuel rods, has fallen for an environmental activist, an Irish lad named Colin. Once again, the family is drifting apart.

Can Homer put it back together, redeem himself for the umpteenth time? Well, let's just say there's more to life than pink-frosted doughnuts, although I wouldn't dangle one in front of Homer as he goes about putting Springfield back on the map. The Simpsons Movie may not reach the heights everybody was hoping for, but it's in there swinging, with deft jabs at politics as usual, business as usual and that embodiment of small-e evil, the average American. I was hoping we would spend a little more time with some of those average Americans; Moe, Krusty the Clown and Mr. Burns all have to settle for cameos. But maybe they'll be given more to do in the sequel, Another Simpsons Movie. In the meantime, it's great to see that things haven't improved a bit since I last drove through Springfield. If anything, they've gotten worse.

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