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'Simpsons Movie': Bigger, Longer, Underwhelming

The Simpsons Movie is longer, more plot-driven, and has more showy animation than an average episode, but it rarely captures the show's magic — the lunatic free-associations and madcap highs. Like the SpongeBob SquarePants movie, it loses something when it's padded and ironed out to conform to a standard Hollywood story template.

I'm frankly more of a South Park than a Simpsons guy — and yet the scatalogical savagery of South Park would hardly have been possible without The Simpsons. The show was a freak TV milestone, its airing the upshot, almost two decades ago, of the fledgling Fox Network's attempt to differentiate itself from the Big Three. Matt Groening, James L. Brooks, and a writing team that boasted a lot of Harvard Lampoon alumni not only changed the way we saw prime-time cartoons, they changed our notion of TV sitcoms. It turns out you can cram a TV show with TV parodies end to end and still find time for a plot. You can even sass Fox and Republican talking points on Rupert Murdoch's dime.

The Simpsons Movie is rooted in the environmental crisis — a fashionable subject now, but one this show has always been in front on. One of its earliest and most memorable images was of a three-eyed fish from a polluted lake being served up to Homer Simpson's boss, the rapacious captain of industry Mr. Burns, and there's a variation of the same gag here.

But Burns isn't the movie's chief polluter. It's Homer who blithely dumps a silo of pig manure into an endangered lake, and whose selfishness has epic consequences. Somehow he brings about the quarantining and imminent nuking of his hometown, Springfield. And when the truth comes out, the whole town converges on him — and Marge, and Bart, and Lisa and baby Maggie.

The family escapes from the mob and heads for Alaska — where, Homer says, you can't be too fat or too drunk — where tensions escalate. His son Bart has already disowned him, preferring the pious ministrations of their next-door neighbor, Flanders. Even Homer's loyal wife is on the verge of giving him up for his selfishness.

It's too bad that, unlike other cartoon protagonists, Homer has always bored me silly. South Park's voracious Cartman is like a character out of a Voltaire play — outsized, with sleazeball stature. Hank Hill of King of the Hill is a befuddled Everyman who is somehow both smaller and larger than life. SpongeBob SquarePants is an eternal optimist of transcendent obliviousness.

But Homer remains a boob, a thickie, a foil for the appalled Bart, the socially conscious Lisa and the chiding but devoted Marge. The dumber Homer is, the more the series — and now the movie — comes down to gags and pop-culture parodies: jabs at TV, suburban cluelessness, political chicanery and the heartlessness of big business and show business.

The gags in the movie are hit and miss. I liked the Tom Hanks cameo and some Road Runner-esque slapstick. But the writers get surprisingly little mileage out of President Arnold Schwarzenegger and his EPA director, Bob Cargill, a blandly resourceful totalitarian lunatic — although the latter is voiced with just the right degree of smugness by someone whose credit reads "A. Brooks," and who sounds like the dad in Finding Nemo.

One joke, though, is so brilliant it made me gasp. When what looks like a huge saucer from space hovers over Springfield, the people in a church run screaming into the bar next door while, at practically the same instant, the people in the bar run screaming into the church. You could write a whole sociology dissertation on that five-second gag. That's The Simpsons at its most glorious and here, alas, all too fleeting.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

David Edelstein is a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, and an occasional commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning. He has also written film criticism for the Village Voice, The New York Post, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section.