"I can't believe we're paying to see something we get on TV for free. If you ask me, everybody in this theater is a giant sucker."
- Homer Simpson
...and seeing as how The Simpsons Movie raked in over five hundred million bucks at the box office here and abroad, there must be a heckuva lot of giant suckers out there. Rumors about Matt Groening's pop culture juggernaut making the leap to the big screen have been swirling around from just about word one, but here we are, knee-deep in the series' nineteenth season, with the first of probably quite a few feature length Simpsons flicks making its bow on DVD and Blu-ray.
So, Lake Springfield is a toxic disaster, but this isn't your off the shelf, garden variety toxicity. We're talkin' quadradodecasomethingsomething-eyed mutant-squirrel-spawningly, multiplatinum-eyeliner-pop-punk-band-meltingly toxic, the sorta thing that's inevitably gonna land on the radar of a go-getter like Russ Cargill, a multibillionaire who's just set up shop as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Lisa prods the townsfolk into cleaning up the lake and setting up an idiot-proof barrier to stave off any further dumping, but idiot-proof ain't in the same league as Homer Simpson-proof, and the leaky silo of Spider Pig poop that Homer plops in there winds up getting Springfield encased in an enormous plexiglass dome. Cargill and his heavily-armed EPA thugs cut Springfield off from the rest of the world, and when word leaks out that Homer's to blame, just about every not-dead supporting character from the past couple of decades marches over to the Simpsons' home, pitchforks and torches in hand.
The Simpsons have their own sneaky little plot device to get them dome-free and outta Springfield to make a clean start, but...gasp! When they find out through the warming glow of television's warm glow that their sleepy little hometown is about to be nuked off the map, Marge and...well, most of the rest of the family step up to save Springfield. Homer bows out because he has to learn a lesson about love and responsibility and family and oodles of other things that only a sagging Eskimo and her spicy spirit quest can teach him, but can he get back in time to save Springfield? To dive in before Bart joins up with the Flanderses? To save his marriage for the eight hojillionth time?
Well, yeah, but that was just supposed to be rhetorical. Okay, so this is the real question -- is The Simpsons Movie as good as The Simpsons at its best? Y'know, that heyday between seasons three and...oh, let's go with eight or nine? Not really, but that's okay; not much of anything could match The Simpsons at its peak, and fretting over where The Simpsons Movie stacks up just distracts from how great it really is.
Instead of taking the musical route like South Park or the whole "their greatest adventure yet!!!" angle that most small-screen-cartoons-cum-movies do, the plot this time around feels like a pretty natural progression from the past eighteen-ish seasons of The Simpsons. Y'know, Homer's selfish and destructively clueless. Lisa is socially conscious and makes for bland subplots. Bart's a daredevil who really just wants to be wuved. Marge tries to be sighingly supportive, but her well-intentioned nagging doesn't shove Homer in the right direction, pushing the already heavy strain on their marriage past the breaking point. Instead of trying to come up with a completely different framework for the movie, the half-battalion of writers keep the kinda familiar structure in place, using that as a springboard to propel things in a more cinematic direction.
The pacing is really nimble; even though the rest of the movie isn't as manic or overcaffeinated the way the first twenty minutes and change are, the writers cram in enough gags to keep everything careening forward even after the story settles in. The movie doesn't linger any more on the nuts and bolts of the plot than it has to -- I mean, at the end of the day, The Simpsons Movie is ultimately about the Simpsons, not what happens to 'em. The story is just meaty enough for the audience to get behind it, and it does feel like some time and effort went into writing a real script instead of just mindlessly hammering out some thread to loosely string together eightysomething minutes' worth of jokes. There's even an almost weepy moment with Marge that's about as emotionally resonant as anything this side of "Mother Simpson" all those years ago.
There's plenty here for longtime fans of The Simpsons. The supporting cast doesn't get all that much screentime, no, but just about everyone shows up at some point -- from Cletus all the way down to Gabbo -- and there are nods to episodes as random as Homer's failed stab at jumping over Springfield Gorge and his chili pepper-induced spirit quest from a different animated injun. I'm not so much the type to laugh out loud when I'm fumbling my way through the whole amateur film critic thing, but The Simpsons Movie not only made me laugh over and over again, but it coaxed out that kind of deep, prolonged, borderline-horrifying laughter where I'm still in hysterics after the movie's moved onto two or three other gags. I was really impressed by how well its sense of humor held up to a second viewing, especially since it'd only been a few months since I last saw it: a clever twist on that Austin Powers-ish PG-13-stuff-blocking-a-character's-dong routine, a bomb-defusing robot buckling under the pressure, Otto getting blotto, uncomfortably hysterical racial jabs, a beautifully animated homage to Disney's wide-eyed forest creatures as they prod forward a, uh, not nearly as lovely a sight, poking fun at Fox's obnoxious ads mid-show... The cinescope compositions are right at twice the width of the usual boxy broadcasts, with the animators and sequence directors taking full advantage and filling the frame with background gags and scores of "hey, isn't that...?" characters from the show. The animation gets a nice polish as well: it's sharper, more fluid, much more colorful, and really deftly integrates CGI into the mix.
I'll leave the whole "worst. movie. ever." chants for someone else; I really dug The Simpsons Movie. Yeah, maybe it would've been nice to have more of the supporting cast in there somewhere, and the laughs may be kinda unevenly weighted towards the first act of the flick, but the family's first outing on the silver screen is far funnier, much more sharply written, and a heckuva lot prettier than I ever could have hoped for from a Simpsons movie. Highly Recommended.
Video: The Simpsons Movie may have a more straightforward visual style compared to the ornate, hypertextured, $120 million computer animation other studios keep churning out, but the crisp line work and strikingly vivid colors still translate beautifully to high definition. The 2.39:1 image -- encoded in AVC, natch -- is flawless. The clarity and definition of the line work are far removed from anything a standard definition DVD could hope to pull off, rendered cleanly and consistently crisply throughout. The heavier use of shadow here helps distinguish the movie's visual style from the more simplistic look of the TV show, and this too shines in high-def. No aliasing, posterization, or compression hiccups were spotted at any point. I'm one of those annoying reviewers who's kind of reluctant to hand out five star scores, but The Simpsons Movie is one of a select few that really deserves it.
Audio: This being an animated flick and all, it kinda follows that every element of The Simpsons Movie's soundtrack was carefully crafted in a steady stream of mind-bogglingly expensive recording studios. This leaves the fidelity of the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio track -- or, at least, the 1.5Mbps core I gave a whirl -- sounding pretty much perfect, with the clarity and detail sparkling from the moment Scratchy first gets impaled on the lunar surface.
The mix isn't particularly aggressive, but it makes reasonably effective use of all of the channels it has on hand. Skwawking ducks, applauding trees, and a sprawling bloodthirsty mob are a few of the elements that keep the surrounds buzzing throughout, and stuff like the whirling EPA choppers and Homer's frenzied running across the roof of the stately Simpsons manor make for some nice, smooth pans from channel to channel. Bass response is pretty solid as well, from the resounding tribal drums of Boob Lady to the low-frequency roar of an applause-induced avalanche to the metallic thud of a wrecking ball sandwiched between a rock and a hard place. 'Course, one of The Simpsons' greatest strengths has always been the talent stepping in front of its microphones, and the voice acting is perfectly balanced in the mix -- crystal clear and never overwhelmed even in the more hyperkinetic sequences. No complaints at all.
Dolby Digital 5.1 dubs have also been tacked on in French and Spanish, and the long list of subtitles includes streams in English, Spanish, Korean, and Cantonese.
Extras: For a flick that grossed a half-billion at the box office worldwide, The Simpsons Movie is kinda light on extras. On the upside, tho', every last bit of 'em is in high-def.
So, you've got two audio commentaries, and James L. Brooks, Matt Groening, Al Jean, Mike Scully, David Silverman, Dan Castellaneta, and Yeardley Smith pile into the commentary booth for the first track. The running theme is how profoundly the movie changed over its hundred-plus drafts (I'm assuming that when they said there were literally a hundred drafts that...y'know, there were literally a hundred drafts), losing -- among other things -- flaming mummies and a federal raid on The View along the way. Sidestepping some of the hurdles with the story is another common topic, noting, f'r instance, that there were over a hundred takes of Marge's heartfelt video to Homer. This is the more accessible of the two tracks, with the gaggle of writers, producers, and voice talent laughing a heckuva lot and giving a really strong impression how different the approach was to making this movie versus just another episode of the TV show. I particularly enjoyed hearing Castellaneta and Smith's insight into and borderline-infectious passion for voice acting. One thing that separates this commentary apart from...well, just about every other one I've ever spun...is that they'll occasionally freeze a frame and continue speaking over it, meaning that the discussion runs longer than the movie itself.
The second track is the more technically oriented of the two, featuring director David Silverman and a small army of sequence directors, including Mike B. Anderson, Steven Dean Moore, and Rich Moore. It has much more of an animation bent, delving into layout, design, the divvying up of work across two different studios, and who on the sprawling animation team tackled what. There is a good bit of overlap with the other track, but suffering through life as an animation nerd and all, I still found its focus on the nuts and bolts of directing a feature length cartoon well worth a listen. Among the other topics that the four of 'em tackle include early test audiences' unrelenting obsession with Spider Pig, briefly mulling over whether or not to bring back Hank Scorpio for the movie, a handful of writers who wanted to gut out Homer's epiphany, and turning to a Jonathan Demme homage to liven up some of the compositions.
Six deleted scenes have been tossed on here too, running a little over five minutes in total if you count the quick, quippy introduction by Al Jean. The quality is a little uneven in some spots, but unlike the rough, sketched deleted scenes crammed onto most animated DVDs, this footage is sharp, fully colored, and in more-or-less pristine high definition. Oh, there's Patty and Selma holding off a briefly polite riot at the DMV, Cargill trying to use his hands and a high chair to illustrate the concept of crisis levels to President Schwarzenegger's blank zzzstare, the dome's impact on retail prices and AA baseball, Marge gabbing a bit more with Emperor Moe, Homer thumbing a ride on a sausage truck, and a marginally different ending.
The Simpsons invaded a couple of other shows to plug the movie, and those quick clips -- around three minutes' worth -- are on here as well. Homer trips on his flop sweat while delivering a monologue on The Tonight Show, clumsily introduces American Idol, and spoofs Idol's judges with a giddy Lisa and a dawg-slinging Marge by his side. A really quick jab at Dave Fleischer's old "let's all go to the laaaaah-bby" clip is on here too.
There are also a whole gaggle of trailers for the movie, from the very first teaser to the lovingly rendered CG fluffy bunny spoofs to the, um, stuff that came after that. These trailers and teasers span more than a full year of promos. Also included are plugs for Alvin and the Chipmunks and Futurama: Bender's Big Score. Yup, the trailer for the Futurama flick is in high-def too, so maybe a Blu-ray release of that is lurking ominously somewhere around the corner too.
Since this is an animated movie and everything, it's only natural that the disc sports a set of nicely animated menus -- clean, easy to navigate, and lots of other awkward but well-intentioned praise. There's also a nice poke at the EPA in there with the rest of the legal disclaimers and stuff that everyone in the free world has been trained to ignore.
Conclusion: I hafta admit to not having paid all that much attention to The Simpsons on the small screen for quite a few years now, but the family's first feature-length flick shows just how much life is left in the franchise four hundred episodes and change later. Nah, the movie's not consistently brilliant, and it's probably not something we'll be raving about ten years from now, but who cares? It's smart, it's funny, and it's a real movie, not feeling like a few episodes of the TV show lazily strung together. The Simpsons Movie also looks and sounds gee-reat in high-def, although the sparse extras are kind of a drag. Even though a way more special edition is probably just a year or so down the road, this high-def release of The Simpsons Movie comes Highly Recommended.