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Published: Friday, 7/27/2007

Movie review: The Simpsons Movie ****

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

My favorite Simpsons line?

In episode 1F08, which aired Dec. 16, 1993 (I mean, duh), Mayor Quimby, of the Kennedy-esque New England accent, addresses the gambling epidemic that has bankrupted the town of Springfield. His solution is genius: "I propose I use what's left of the town treasury," he says, "and move to a more prosperous town, run for mayor, and once elected I will send for all of you."

Wait - you beg to differ?

You know a better quote?

"Release the hounds"?

"Eat my shorts"?

"D'oh"?

Sorry, but we could be here all day. There are entire Web sites devoted to Quimby lines alone, a relatively minor character, as there are sites that compile every memorable quote from Bart, Homer, Marge, Smithers, Mr. Burns, and a gazillion others. There are sites that dissect every reference, plumb every character, dote on every plot variance (in another episode, for instance, due to lax trash collection, Quimby proposes moving Springfield five miles down the road "and I will meet you there.") The trouble is, your Simpsons is not my Simpsons, and that's the difficulty of pulling a movie adaptation from a series this vast, deep, and intensely ingrained.

Compared with the relatively private pleasures of television, movies are a group experience. Any kind of big-screen Simpsons is, from inception, an oxymoron, even more so than your run-of-the-mill TV-to-film adaptations.

Okely dokely?

So, 20 years in the making, 400 episodes into its run, after 23 Emmy awards, with a screenplay boasting 11 of its finest writers (and one Oscar winner, James L. Brooks), and a cast of dozens voiced by a cast of, oh, a dozen:

Here we are, finally.

The Simpsons Movie opens today in Toledo and takes the road most traveled and least adventurous and - this is not a bad thing - plays like a warm reminder of why we needed The Simpsons at one time, and why we still might require them yet. At least two generations have been weened on this show. Imagine the work hours alone that have been lost from employees turning to co-workers and asking "Remember the one when ..." Heck, to call it the finest TV series ever is not provocative but a cliche. So the opportunity to pay it mass tribute is its own reward, even if the movie does the series justice without quite justifying its leap to big screens.

Consider.

From the start, before every animated series from South Park to the Adult Swim line-up took it as its mission, the idea of subverting our most beloved and respected institutions by using a brightly colored, perky cartoon was brilliant - an idea as old as the Brothers Grimm and fairy tales. But that mission remains.

A few of the people and things that get what's coming to them in The Simpsons Movie: Arnold Schwarzenegger, global warming, the Bush Administration. A few more people and things that take it on the chin: animated penguins, disgraced FEMA director Michael Brown, Green Day. And a few more targets for ridicule: alcoholism, the Bible, Mitch Albom, drug use, Disney, the Kennedy clan, the Catholic Church, suicide, Nixon, nuclear war, Tom Hanks, Al Gore, book clubs, police, robots, dogs, cats, the Environmental Protection Agency, Bono, the Irish, Jesus Christ, Buddha, Titanic, TV news anchors, the Grand Canyon, Alaska, Illinois, Maine, Nevada, Spider-Man, squirrels, corruption, Intelligent Design, Mexico, video games, racism, the elderly, the war on terror, Fox TV, and lastly, the American public.

As for the plot, if this were TV Guide, it might read something like: "Homer falls in love with a pig, dumps porcine excrement into a lake, causes an environmental breakdown, gets disowned by his family, and threatens the existence of Springfield."

In other words:

Another day at the office.

Which is both what s so durably satisfying about the movie (it zips by and the laughs are strong, like a typical episode) and kind of mundane about it. There are many good reasons it took The Simpsons this long to make it to theaters, but the truest is that the people behind it are smart enough to know better. Never mind not having the right story, they re aware of the pitfalls if they do: they re aware there is really no point in stretching to 90 minutes what is designed for 30; and they know that an animated TV series can t be "opened up" for film the way a live-action series can the palate is limited.

It s why Looney Tunes never made a successful translation to feature films, despite the ubiquity of Bugs and Co. You can t draw the characters differently just because the screen is bigger; you can t change the tone because paying audiences expect more. There s nothing really different but the size of the screen. You are locked in to the fundamental look and design the way you re not if adapting, say, a Miami Vice or Bewitched.

Which, actually, leads to the film s first really big laugh: Homer stands up in a movie theater after having watched the latest Itchy and Scratchy movie and declares, "What kind of idiot pays for something they can get for free on TV?" Then he looks into the camera and announces:

"Sucker."

It s not the first time the movie feels a little sweaty and awkward about being thrown up on a movie screen. But that line reminded me of a famous Johnny Rotten provocation. During the Sex Pistols very last show, he looked out on the audience and asked: "Ever feel like you ve been cheated?" But in both cases, that doesn t mean the rip-off artist isn t working his little heart out.

The Simpsons Movie, like the Sex Pistols, is about, if nothing else, having the courage of convictions. Indeed, so many of the series leading screenwriters and producers contributed, and the plot is so pointed in the direction of the Bush years, you sense some disappointment in the air, as if they wished they d been on their A-game now, not during the relative tranquility of the early 1990s, the series heyday.

But in typical Simpsons fashion, that pig poop plot is just a leaping point: the government encases Springfield in a bubble, which leads to a thinly veiled reenactment of Hurricane Katrina as the sense of exile curdles to chaos. The president is Arnold Schwarzenegger "I was picked to lead, not read." And Albert Brooks plays basically every government lackey you feel like picturing. As usual, the deepest cuts are reserved for the American people who cheer video screens no matter the bad news being delivered, who sit through a three-hour Green Day concert but pelt the band with trash the second they mention anything political. There is not much urgency in those messages. Then again, there never was. If the plot succumbs a bit to the need to fill every inch of the big screen, what s intact is the smaller stuff.

Where its heart always was.

It s always been a show where the throw-away line lands harder than the big point, and that s true here. It s always given its best lectures by deflating them a little again, true here. (That s a trick, I bet, Al Gore learned from the series.) I won t spoil any of the gags, but know this: there are no revelations; every Simpson and supporting schlub slips into his or her role as dutifully as ever. The core, the romance between Homer and Marge, is as strained and genuine as always Julie Kavner s Marge voice is, if anything, even more heartfelt than usual. Considering the show, though still funny, has seen better years, it s everything you could expect from a Simpsons movie manic and smart, not quite days of fire and vim, but like a visit with a dear old friend.

Remember when, you think.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com or 419-724-6117.



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