Friday, January 9, 2015

Under The Dome

Year: 2007
Director: David Silverman
Cast: Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright
Run Time: 1 hour 27 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

This summer I spent eight hours a day five days a week transcribing episodes of The Simpsons for my summer job. All in all, not the worst temp work I've ever done. I mean, it beats folding plaid shifts for Catholic schoolgirls. (Fun Fact: I actually did work at a school uniform retail store the summer before college. Lucky me!) 

Anyway, what all this boils down to is that Sergio and I vowed to watch The Simpsons Movie once my work was done both as a celebration and as a revisitation of an animated classic now that I had the necessary 18-odd years of context. (Fun Fact: The Simpsons is five years older than I am. Less Fun Fact: I learned this in excruciating detail when I was working full time transferring data fields for each of those years.) So we did watch it. Here's how that went.

If the movie was really terrible, I'd have had a funnier caption to this photo.

When a television property becomes a work of cinema, several things happen. First, fanboys and fangirls and fan-non-binary-adaptives rejoice. Second, Twitter pundits complain excessively. Considering that in 2007 Twitter was nowhere near being a widely-embraced fountain of cultural insight (come to think of that, it still isn't), naysayers must have carved their complaints into stone - or whatever it was that passed for social platform in the days before iPhones. Third, and most importantly, the work gains the inherent expansiveness of the cinema format.

It is a challenge and an opportunity when transferring a sitcom into a feature length motion picture, especially an animated one. The jokes and aesthetics of a TV program might work on the small-screen slices of 22 minutes that break up the endless void of commercials. But there's every chance that they could extend past their shelf life when presented on the massive silver screen in a 90-minute, uninterrupted chunk.

There's also a great deal of physical danger involved.

The Simpsons Movie tentatively embraces the larger format and looser morals of the movie houses and it is a marked return to form after a couple of seasons in the dumps, but it only halfway succeeds in being something bigger than itself. The beauty of the show lies in its massive, hyperextended cast of minor characters, about whom I have previously written with rapturous regard. Having a bigger platform should have encouraged the Simpsons veteran filmmakers* to pull out all the stops in a whiz bang extravaganza celebration of the show's legacy, giving as many characters as possible a moment in the limelight.

The Simpsons Movie adamantly refuses to do this, and that is its biggest flaw. It instead resorts to a well-worn storyline (though, after 18 seasons, any possible storyline was already going to have been picked apart by moths in a studio cloakroom long ago): Homer Simpson (Dan Castellaneta) has faults as a husband and father which estrange him from his family until he can learn to overcome his selfishness and stupidity and realize that there are people who depend on him. It's not a bad plot, nor is it a bad film, but the structure requires Homer to venture off on his own, limiting the amount of time we get to spend with beloved personalities, or - come to think of it - inside Springfield itself.

Although they are credited, recurring characters Patty, Selma, and Edna Krabappel are given not a single line of dialogue, and many other perennial favorites are cast aside into crowd scenes or given paltry plot-specific lines before fading into the background once more. Even Milhouse, Bart's best friend, is barely given a passing nod. And I don't even want to speak about poor Martin Prince or Hans Moleman.

If you'll excuse me, I need to take a puff from my NerdRage inhaler. Give me a second.

*Director David Silverman has been with The Simpsons since day one (he directed the pilot episode) and the movie shares literally dozens of writer-producers with the show. 

OK, that's better.

We now return to your regularly scheduled review. Sure, The Simpsons Movie has its flaws, but it's also tremendously funny and rewarding and I haven't even really touched the plot yet. So. When Lake Springfield becomes overly polluted, young Lisa Simpson (Yeardley Smith) assembles a petition to improve Springfield's environment. Things get better until Homer brings home a pig and needs to find somewhere to dump his... waste. 

Needless to say, Homery things happen and the lake ends up even worse than before. Soon after, the EPA - led by corrupt businessman Russ Cargill (Albert Brooks) - lowers a dome over the city to prevent it from polluting the rest of the nation. After a Stephen Kingian amount of time (say, about 20 seconds), the townspeople turn on Homer and mob the Simpsons, who escape through a secret exit and heave ho toward Alaska and a new life. But Marge (Julie Kavner) has serious doubts about Homer's reckless, endangering behavior and Bart (Nancy Cartwright) is beginning to see evangelical neighbor Ned Flanders (Harry Shearer) - pious as a cherry pie though he may be - as a better father figure than the one he's got. 

Lisa's obviously mad about the pollution thing (leading to many an oh-so 2007 joke including a parody of An Inconvenient Truth that has already aged so poorly, one might reasonably begin to worry about the current state of US environmentalism). And Maggie's just along for the ride, she's chill. But before long, Homer alienates his family one too many times and is left alone in the wintry wilderness, tasked with saving his family, Springfield, and himself in the process.

The city of Springfield (played by Hank Azaria) nervously awaits its savior.

Along with these plot beats comes a smattering of some of the best Simpsons material in years, sharply skewering religion, environmentalism, the government, and just about every hot topic on the market (except, notably, Hot Topic). Freed of the standards and practices department for 87 beautiful minutes, The Simpsons Movie embraces the dark side its satirical nature for the first time in many moons. Also returning are the show's classic slapstick comedy (Homer is always funny, but he has rarely been so consistently on point delivering the doltish broad humor that his character does best) and clever sight gags. 

And although its ambitions are far too low in the character department, the film dips its toe in the waters of ribaldry, tossing in humor it never could have gotten away with otherwise. A curse word or two here, a bong and a cartoon penis there... It's no cartoon Big Lebowski, but it's definitely a far cry from prime time at the Fox network.

Along with a wider mean streak, the film gains a deeper aesthetic, with the animation exploring the depth of its cartoonish world, sometimes even flirting with the fabled third dimension. There is some CGI imagery that goes awry, but The Simpsons Movie is largely pristine, with moments that legitimately resemble real world cinematography in a way the show has never attempted in any meaningful way. A shot of the wind blowing outside the dome while Marge sits in the backyard is breathtaking, and there are plenty of spectacular visual moments that follow.

This... is not one of them.

The Simpsons Movie is a strange beast with one foot in the movies and one foot firmly planted network television. It explores and it doesn't explore the implications of transferring from one to the other. It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. But through all the contradictions, it's an entertaining, incisive, droll tale about a family that can make it through anything, and there ain't nothing wrong with that.

TL;DR: The Simpsons Movie can't quite shake off the feeling of being too small, but it's funny and sharp nonetheless.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1329

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