Forty-two years in the making, 250 speaking character roles, an epic animated parable about sin, redemption, and mail-bearing owls that was first sketched out on the back of a takeout menu with a stubby pencil circulated among 18 writers who found themselves stranded en masse at Chicago’s O’Hare airport one special Christmas Eve: The Simpsons Movie can’t claim any such spectacle or creation mythology. And that’s great news, especially for devotees of the profound and profoundly funny long-running TV show — we who have been wondering (and maybe even worrying) for some time what revered writer-producers James L. Brooks, Matt Groening, Al Jean, and Mike Scully would do with three times the usual space to tell a Simpsons story. Would there be radical character development or stunt celebrity participation? Charming, image-enhancing voice-over work from presidential candidate Hillary Clinton? Would there be magic?
Turns out what they’ve done is make everything bigger, longer, and uncut, but let Homer be Homer, an average American screwup in a recognizable, screwed-up world of hypocrisy and lardy foodstuffs. The best thing about this long-awaited feature-length project, a classic Simpsonian interplay of family psychology, social commentary, and brainy visual and verbal jokes tossed off at rat-a-tat speed, is how relaxed it manages to be (or appears to be — the hard work is, for the most part, hidden), even as it expands, emotionally, to fill a bigger screen. Aware of its responsibilities to ticket buyers at all times — from the raucously clever opening to the last rewarding frame of the closing credits — this is a project that understands that the best TV-to-movie transitions emphasize depth, not length. When Bart looks at neighbor Ned Flanders with new eyes and thinks about the qualities that make a good father, that counts as big news.
So, yes, there’s plot. There’s the part where Homer adopts a pet pig and lovingly collects the porker’s droppings in a backyard silo and then dumps the silo into Lake Springfield despite dire warnings about the town’s looming environmental problems (Lisa Simpson’s community lecture about local pollutants, ”An Irritating Truth,” falls on unmotivated ears). Naturally, Homer doesn’t think twice about his crime, because Homer never listens to anything except the chingy-chingy sound of the windup monkey clanging cymbals that is the soundtrack loop in his little brain. And yes, the toxic calamity gets so bad that the Environmental Protection Agency decides to entomb all of Springfield in an impermeable bubble — for starters. (Under the administration of a certain President Schwarzenegger, the EPA has been co-opted by a rich, ethically unencumbered plutocrat with the resonant name of Cargill, voiced with gusto by Albert Brooks.)
And, well, okay, the Simpson clan manages at one point to escape to Alaska, where there’s a delightful moment involving a tap-dancing penguin (not so happy in the end for the penguin, but a thrill for Simpsons fans who count on the series’ barbed pop cultural commentary) and a romantic interlude between husband and wife before family tensions come to a crisis. Also, Homer briefly rides a motorcycle, organizes a team of sled dogs, and embarks on a hallucinogenic trip, in no particular order. And there’s a spectacular skateboard scene that rewards some two decades of loyalty, as a naked Bart streaks past everybody who ever walked the streets of Springfield.
But honestly, the ”action” sequences sometimes falter, overstaying their welcome and turning into filler, because plot has never been what distinguishes The Simpsons, either on TV or in this movie. It’s the d’oh!s. The Proustian value of doughnuts. The reliability of Homer’s boorishness, the Comic Book Guy’s obsessiveness, Milhouse’s asthma attacks, the pleasures of the genius cast of regulars, voicing all those obstreperous residents. And the way one yellow family of four-fingered individualists — Homer and Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie, Grampa, and even the addled dog, Santa’s Little Helper — are committed, in the face of all obstacles, to sticking together.
With limited spiritual help (”This book doesn’t have any answers!” Homer shrieks in church, riffling through the Bible for advice when Grampa falls to the floor in an apparent religious fit), and even less faith in government (”I was elected to lead, not to read,” declares President Schwarzenegger), the Simpson center does hold. And The Simpsons Movie sweetly cradles one great American family. B+