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July 25-31, 2007

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'The Simpsons Movie': Peasants under glass

By Richard von Busack

TURNING a TV show into a movie is risky work in the best of circumstances. Transforming the densest, most daring TV show ever made was even more of a risk. Happily, The Simpsons Movie is everything that was advertised.

The film gives us Homer's most lethal comic misadventure, hinging on a quite serious moment: Julie Kavner's voice breaking, as her Marge realizes that she can't find the words to defend her husband's terrible conduct anymore.

Every sitcom justifies the exchange of mutual sarcasm with a huggy last few minutes. But underneath the comedy, The Simpsons, a bleak parody of the sitcom, has had a more existential streak.

The love is more helpless, the clashes more like wars, temporarily calmed when interests coincide: Homer and Marge's need for sex ("snuggling" to use the censor-friendly euph), or the father and the son's mutual love of destruction.

After Lake Springfield's pollution kills a noted rock band, Grandpa makes a religious prophecy, predicting doom for the city. Sensibly writing this off as senile dementia, Homer and Bart enjoy the remainder of their Sunday with a game of dares. Challenged to skateboard nude across town, young Bart ends up arrested, and seeking fatherly guidance and consolation. Homer, easily distracted as always, is more interested in fawning over a pet pig he's adopted.

The pig presents a sanitation problem, which brings Lake Springfield to the tipping point; the now-mutagenic lake forces the government to seal off the entire town with a bulletproof dome. When Homer's part in fouling the lake is revealed, the town gets nooses and torches.

As the ruthless EPA director Russ Cargill (Albert Brooks) prepares a final solution for Springfield, the Simpsons escape and head for the Last Frontier. Comfortably settled in Alaska, Homer is contented to hang out at Eski-Moe's, but his family separates over the effort to urge him to return to save the town.

The wide screen gives extra dimension to the only virtual city that matters, as well as Michael Bay–worthy size for the arrival of the dome by a pack of cargo helicopters. The animated snowscapes are everything aching-wristed animators trapped in Los Angeles would dream about.

I don't know if the film's opener is the most explosive Itchy and Scratchy cartoon ever, or if the size of the screen gives it more power. What was once clearly a tribute to TV-size animation, particularly Paramount's notorious "Herman and Katnip" cartoons, now looks as cosmic as Tex Avery's work. And it's topped with a final gag that would just about bring Avery back from the dead. Walt Disney is gone after, and got; and we also see commentary on Bart's drinking problem.

Is it more than the TV show, though? Unlike the South Park movie, it doesn't jump into a risky engagement with pressure groups. The bit about "Cargill" and corporate farming's lakes of pig poop are more like hidden clues than the inspired political skewering of a great Simpsons episode.

Since he'd previously tried to blot out the sun, it was probably thought Mr. Burns would be repeating himself by closing off the heavens. It seems like a Simpsons movie ought to have had a larger role for such an accomplished villain.

This film is ultimately a spin-off, frequently addressing the problem of changing from television, like a teasing "To be continued..." in the middle, and a probably deserved taunting of the audience for being dumb enough to pay for what they could get for free at home.

Don't begrudge the money. Worthy of the show's best episodes, The Simpsons Movie gives these characters so much more room to breathe.

Movie Times The Simpsons Movie (PG-13; 87 min.), directed by David Silverman, written by Matt Groening, James L. Brooks, et al. and with the voices of Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright, Yeardley Smith and Harry Shearer, plays valleywide.

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