After 18 years and 400 episodes, “The Simpsons” has developed a wide array of potential moviegoers, from those who still watch to those who once watched to those who don’t watch anymore but now have kids that do. The question is how many will feel inspired to ante up for something so readily available for the price of enduring commercials and Fox’s incessant on-air promotion. Happily, the long-gestating movie itself offers a fine incentive, and Fox’s inspired marketing campaign (7-Eleven becoming Kwik-E-Mart? Genius) should ensure enough curiosity to stuff the studio’s pockets, as it were, with dollars from doughnuts.
Put simply, if somebody had to make a “Simpsons” movie, this is pretty much what it should be — clever, irreverent, satirical and outfitted with a larger-than-22-minutes plot, capable (just barely) of sustaining a narrative roughly four times the length of a standard episode.
On its face, this is no small accomplishment. The conundrum of expanding a TV program (particularly of the animated variety) to feature size and scope has always posed a tricky proposition — one conquered by the coarse laughs of “Beavis and Butt-head Do America” and “South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut,” but resulting in disappointment with, well, just about everything else.
Neither of those other properties, however, possesses the mass appeal of “The Simpsons,” and the credited team of 11 writers (all of them at one time producers on the show) have incorporated plenty of knowing flourishes the audience will surely appreciate — among them an especially smart bit at the outset, directly addressing why anyone would pay “to see something we get on TV for free.” Along the way, the writers gleefully bite the hands that feed them at Fox, dismiss Disney as an evil empire, and lampoon U.S. government functionaries as inept buffoons who celebrate finally catching somebody they’re pursuing.
Seizing on an environmental theme, the plot hinges on rampant pollution of the local lake, with the thoughtlessness of family patriarch Homer (Dan Castellaneta, who provides no fewer than 10 different voices) yielding an epic screw-up, imperiling the entire town of Springfield.
Under ruthless bureaucrat Russ Cargill (Albert Brooks, credited as A. Brooks), the Environmental Protection Agency declares the commu-nity a quarantined disaster area, prompting the local citizenry to literally march on the Simpson residence with torches and force the whole brood into retreat. It thus falls to Homer to find a way to save the town, in the process redeeming himself in the eyes of his wife Marge (Julie Kavner) and son Bart (Nancy Cartwright), who has grown to feel so neglected by dad that he takes refuge with Bible-thumping neighbor Ned Flanders (Harry Shearer).
There are multiple side plots as well to help flesh out the story, from Grandpa making an ominous prophecy to Homer adopting a pig to daughter Lisa (Yeardley Smith) being smitten with a guitar-playing Irish youth who shares her passion for environmentalism.
For all of that, the movie drags in places. Yet as is invariably the case with “The Simpsons,” the smaller, practically throwaway gags often provide the biggest laughs, whether it’s Tom Hanks’ earnest cameo as himself, a “Titanic” riff or Bart’s sure-to-be-talked-about skateboarding sequence, yielding a fleeting but riotous glimpse of animated genitalia. (Despite a PG-13 rating, the humor seldom feels more scabrous than an average episode.)
Technically, the movie capitalizes on its enhanced aspect ratio without altering the show’s fundamental look, though there are moments of computer-generated scale that clearly embrace the feature canvas, employing more than the typical TV toolkit.
“The Simpsons Movie” clearly represented a marketing challenge, and, given the build-up, Fox appears to have been equal to that task. As for magnifying the series without losing its deeply ingrained charms, the producers have mostly passed that test as well, proving their 18-year-old child was ready to go out and face the big bad (theatrical) world.