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Just because Eddie Punchclock and Sally Housecoat have managed to keep The Simpsons on the air for 18 years doesn’t mean that it’s still worth tuning in to watch. The past few seasons have become increasingly painful, with forced, out-of-character antics and jokes shamelessly recycled like so many stapled-together Krusty Burgers. So for loyal, longtime fans, the prospect of The Simpsons Movie was as worrisome as it was exciting: A failed big-screen adaptation of the beloved series would be the unfortunate, unequivocal sign that it was time to release the hounds on the clan for good.
What a relief, then, that it doesn’t suck. Creator Matt Groening gathered a team including veteran series director David Silverman and plenty of back-in-the-day writers to create a zippy, 87-minute mega-episode, one that doesn’t quite rank among the best but is far from the worst. The story goes back to the Simpsons-save-the-day basics and reverses a couple of recently developed bad habits along the way—most egregiously, the morphing of Homer from cranky buffoon to enraged jerk.
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Of course, he still screws up, and this time he potentially dooms not only his marriage but all of Springfield. The no-state town is in denial about its toxic lake, despite attempts by Lisa (Yeardley Smith) to environmentally school her neighbors by preaching about pollution door-to-door and hosting a conference, An Irritating Truth. Lisa convinces the residents to stop dumping, but eventually doughnuts speak louder than words: When Homer (Dan Castellaneta) hears that Lard Lad is giving out free goodies, he decides that he doesn’t have time to properly dispose of a silo filled with the waste of his new pet pig. So into Lake Springfield it slides. Immediately, the waters burble into an ominous green and a skull appears, growling “Eeeevil!” Soon after, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (Albert Brooks) seals off the whole dirty city in an impenetrable—or is it?—dome.
Sharply drawn both literally and figuratively, The Simpsons Movie doesn’t show off with an onslaught of celebrity cameos (Green Day and Tom Hanks being two quick exceptions), and, in fact, even many favorite secondary characters are restricted to populating crowd scenes or spouting a line or two. The latter is somewhat unfortunate—no episode has suffered because of too much Principal Skinner or Mr. Burns—but the writers’ decision to focus on the family doesn’t backfire. (The choice to include a “President Schwarzenegger” instead of the show’s Ahnold stand-in, Rainier Wolfcastle, is more puzzling.) It’s not only Homer who’s been de-caricaturized: Marge (Julie Kavner) and Lisa are once again do-gooders who are funny instead of annoying and Bart (Nancy Cartwright), though arguably the character who’s stayed the truest throughout the years, is a troublemaker who’s entertainingly rebellious (two words: skateboarding sequence) without coming off like a brat.
Homer, though, is the center of this universe, and the script effortlessly laces a story of government corruption with lessons embodied in the bumbling patriarch on maintaining a good marriage and thinking of people other than yourself. Still, this isn’t a Hallmark special: Sly humor and subversion are what have won The Simpsons fans for the past two decades, and the movie continues that tradition by including mischief such as drunkenness, nudity, slams on cultural icons, and social commentary that will offend sensitive sensibilities. A wide canvas gave the animators ample opportunity to fill the screen to bursting with gags you’ll likely need the DVD to catch, including credit-crawls of fake names. Turning out a film worthy of 18 years of anticipation couldn’t have been easy—but cheers to Groening for not taking Homer’s legendary advice to never try.