Has there ever been a more what-you-see-is-what-you-get title than The Simpsons Movie? It’s the last word that’s the key: The brain trust behind the series (11 of its writers are credited with the screenplay) have emphasized theatrical presentation above all, even building a curtain-raising short (starring Itchy and Scratchy, natch) into the feature. The opening gimmick allows for a change in aspect ratio (from 1.85:1) to the Cinemascope range (2.35:1) that’s probably the most effective use of such a trick since Galaxy Quest. From there on, there’s seldom a scene that fails to make use of the wide canvas the creators have allowed themselves. The visual upgrade (among other things, the linework is cleaner and more fluid than it’s ever been on the series) is one of the main reasons I’d strongly encourage anyone inclined to see the film to do so on its opening weekend with the largest crowd possible.
The film’s most unique quality is how it offers, pretty much for the first time ever, the chance to see how the series’s brand of humor goes over with a big audience. The first 15 minutes are basically a series of vignettes, and for anyone who’s spent the better part of their life watching the series, the communal response to the film’s first gags involving Milhous, Abe Simpson, Ned Flanders, Monty Burns, et. al. is pretty close to exhilarating (ditto reaction to a couple of priceless moments that could never pass Fox Standards & Practices, which I wouldn’t dream of spoiling). Seeing the movie at home could never come remotely close to matching the experience.
The biggest problem is that the film peaks before the plot really kicks in. The story itself is awfully similar to that of a great many episodes, and it makes the deadly mistake of separating the Simpson clan from their fellow Springfieldians for the bulk of the running time. And the familiar nature of the plot only serves to underscore a myriad of baffling creative decisions: Lisa and Marge get virtually nothing to do, there are no musical numbers to speak of, and loads of mainstay characters barely appear, with major fan favorites such as Patty and Selma, Principal Skinner, Ralph Wiggum and Krusty the Klown among the near-absentees. Also peculiar is the lack of pop culture references (the series has never been afraid to date itself) and the decision to begin the movie with an ultratopical gag and then avoid such humor thereafter.
If a Simpsons movie absolutely had to be made, it should have happened prior to 1998—in other words, before the death of Phil Hartman, whose Lionel Hutz and Troy McClure, two characters with enormous potential to help drive a plot that could remain interesting for seventy-some-odd minutes (the running time minus credits). And if the writers were going to take another trip to a creative well they’ve visited time and again over the years, they’d have been much better off serving up an epic Bart vs. Sideshow Bob confrontation than a predictable Homer-centric plot. The end credits inevitably include a sequel tease (the manner in which it’s done is one of the film’s few real eye-rollers, unfortunately), and the producers may well rectify some of their omissions if the charcters make another trip to the big screen. Will they get the chance? The Simpsons Movie isn’t bad, but neither is it good enough, I suspect, to convince a lot of people to buy the proverbial cow after seventeen and a half years of getting the milk for free.
Andrew Johnston is the television critic for Time Out New York.