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Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Simpsons Movie

I was living in Portland, Oregon when Matt Groening first introduced “The Simpsons” in a series of Sergio Aragonés-inspired character vignettes between segments on “The Tracy Ullman Show” back in 1987. They were a lot less attractive back then, kind of like most regular people are before they become well-known and are transformed into celebrities by focus groups, wardrobe and make-up consultants, and a cosmetic surgeon or three as needed. Apparently even animated stars can be made over, and when Fox spun off the family into their own series two years later the five principles were decidedly more mainstream, much as they appear today, bright and shiny archetypes of the all American dysfunctional nuclear family.

In Portland, a building on mainstay Burnside Street in downtown was painted with a six story high mural of the family the summer before the show debuted and there wasn’t a citizen or visitor in the then-half million population who did not consider them hometown heroes, especially since their creator came from tiny little Springfield, Oregon, an hour-and-a-half to the south and now called Portland his home. Nowadays, I guess being from Springfield, Oregon wouldn’t count for beans since the studio’s marketing department decided to make a contest of finding a home for The Simpsons as a tie-in stunt for this film. As everybody now knows, according to Fox, Groening has been deluding himself all these years, and his creations actually live in Springfield, Vermont, whether he likes it or not. How cool is that for those of us in Vermont?

Of course, like the rest of Portland, back in 1989 I developed an odd familial pride in the Simpson Family, though, to be honest, I harbored a secret uneasiness about them as well, and I’ll admit it is because of my own prejudice. I couldn’t help it. It’s was because of my dimbulb Uncle Jimmy. He’s “only your uncle by way of your father’s side of the family, which means it is like through marriage and so doesn’t count” my mother Stacy Sternblatt-Levenstein-Correia-Banks would always make sure to remind me. He not only drank himself through two livers and managed to get infected with both Hepatitis A & B simultaneously; he was basically an unapologetic alcoholic and a man whore, as well as the world’s worst lion tamer. Seriously. Thanks to the Hepititi (?) he spent the last years of his life a stunning canary yellow, jaundiced and bloated from head-to-toe, and because of his bad job skills in the circus he had provided finger sandwiches to the big cats twice, leaving him with three mustard-colored fingers and a thumb on each hand. Aye carumba! Oh, and did I mention he was fat and bald? Well, he was, so you can imagine that every time I’d turn on “The Simpsons” I’d get a shiver of déjà vu and, if my mother was visiting, a screech that would send her blue hair straight up into the stratosphere. D’Oh!

Unlike my uncle who is now living-challenged, in the past eighteen years the Simpson Family has remained as ageless as Lena Horne or Eartha Kitt, though unlike though inimitable crooners, the repertoire of “The Simpsons” doesn’t always seem as fresh as it once did. I’ve lost count of the number of throat-grabbing strangulations Homer (voiced by Dan Castellaneta; The Pursuit of Happyness) has inflicted upon smart-mouthed son Bart (Nancy Cartwright; also on tv’s “Kim Possible” ), the amount of times ever-patience Marge (Julie Kavner; Click) has had to forgive Homer for some lame-brained scheme gone awry, or the gazillions of social concerns saintly daughter Lisa (Yeardley Smith; Back By Midnight) has extolled, but in their big screen debut all of these familiar bits are here once again, which is a both to be expected but is also a tad disappointing because there is so much more to mine.

One thing “The Simpsons” has always excelled at is the creation of unique and easily recognizable multi-dimensional characters which its’ audience can relate to. Over eighteen years, the Simpsons landscape has become crowded with at least two hundred or more regular characters vying for
screen time and so there is no way with a running time of a mere 86 minutes that The Simpsons Movie is going to do justice to more than a handful of the regulars, and many favorites are left in the wings or in cameo appearances, which is a real shame. I, for one, am a big fan of Apu (Hank Azaria; The Grand), the hapless purveyor of the Kwik-E-Mart, and yet not a single “squishee” (the drink of choice made at Apu’s store) is offered or sipped. Edna Krabapple (Marcia Wallace; Big Stan), Bart’s constantly put-upon teacher, is another casualty, as are many you’d expect to see. On the other hand, getting plenty of screen time along with the family itself is fan fave Krusty the Clown (also Castellaneta), not-so-fave Ned Flanders (Harry Shearer; For Your Consideration), and why-is-he-even-here? Chief Wiggum (Azaria doing double duty). I’d have traded ten minutes of Wiggum for five with Marge’s sisters Thelma and Patty. Alas, it is not to be, except in crowd scenes, where if you have a quick enough eye, you can scan and try to spot your personal choices and make do with that in a quick Simpsons video version of “Where’s Waldo?”

The film opens with one of its cleverest bits, featuring an “Itchy and Scratchy” movie within the movie, which ends with Homer ranting to the Springfield audience and directly to the actual theater audience, admonishing them for paying to see some “crap” they can watch for free at home on tv. And so, with tongue placed firmly in yellow cheek, begins a nonsensical tale that has Homer ruining efforts to clean up Lake Springfield by surreptitiously dumping a silo (yes, a silo) of pig poop (and some of his own ~ don’t ask) into the water and thus creating an environmental nightmare, including mutated wildlife. Thanks to Homer’s devotion to his new pet pig, Spider-Pig and then renamed the equally inane Harry Plopper, he ignores Bart, causes tons of extra work for Marge, and is clueless that his actions are responsible for bringing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to declare Springfield a national disaster area, where, under the guidance of Russ Cargill (Albert Brooks; Finding Nemo), the city is quarantined by having a gigantic impenetrable dome placed over it, entrapping everyone inside permanently.

There are wayward digressions that don’t really add much to the plot, like an escape trip the family makes to Alaska, but the strength of “The Simpsons” tv show was always in the characters and the little bits here-and-there rather than in the larger plot. Fans know to look in the background and read signs or watch what’s happening behind the action. In one typical Bart and Homer screw-up scene as they repair the roof, the real laugh is not that Homer does screw-up and falls through the roof, it’s that as he does Grandpa Simpson is sitting below, oblivious to all the action as he is engrossed in reading “Oatmeal Enthusiast” magazine. Sigh. And to think I let my subscription lapse.

Naturally, before all is done, it falls to Homer to fix the situation he caused and rescue the town so that he can win back the respect and love of his entire family, and you know that is going to happen because season nineteen of the series is set to debut the Fall.

Fans of the tv show won’t be disappointed by The Simpsons Movie. It’s brilliant, colorful, and as
silly as it is on the small screen every week. As far as I could tell the only differences here were the inclusion of a very brief yet cleverly executed glimpse of Bart’s genitalia and the shocking utterance of a curse by mother Marge. Other than these tiny bits (sorry, Bart, but it’s true) everything in Springfield is just about the same old story but ten times bigger.

Don't have a cow, Man. You can check this one out at the Essex Cinemas right now.

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