At this point in American culture, it's nearly impossible to underestimate the importance of "The Simpsons."
The Internet's roughly 30% "Simpsons" quotes by volume; another 10%'s taken up by arguments about which is better, "South Park," "Family Guy," "Futurama" or any other of the countless animated sit-coms that wouldn't exist without it.
Kids who weren't born when the series started will graduate high school next year. Many of us first learned presidents could be wrong when George and Barbara Bush naysayed the show. When it started off, the writers got censors' notes about how many times they could swear during prime-time, but now we live like kings! Damn hell ass kings!
But is the show actually any good any more? Lots of us say no -- and that it hasn't been for as many as ten seasons. Others call us humorless jerks and other things that, even in these "Simpsons"-liberated days, aren't fit to print, arguing the show's still better than 99% of what's on TV. Either way, expectations are high, as the movie roped in many of the show's most influential writers and directors.
Brilliantly, "The Simpsons Movie" starts off with a clip from the Itchy and Scratchy movie that defined the lives of Springfield's children. Eventually, a plot coalesces around the town's uber-polluted lake. When Homer selfishly dumps more waste in it, it turns into a mutating sludge so potent it turns a fuzzy woodland creature into a horrible monster.
A sinister EPA agent, voiced by Albert Brooks, who you might remember from such episodes as the one with Hank Scorpio, talks President Schwarzenegger into putting an enormous dome over the town. Even casual fans know Springfield will devolve into a violent mob on the slightest pretext. Once they discover Homer is to blame for ruining the town, they descend on 742 Evergreen Terrace with torches in hand and try to tear the Simpsons limb from limb till they find a way to escape the dome.
The worst thing "The Simpsons Movie" could have done was try so hard to be a big, important movie it forgot to be funny. Not only is it funny right off the bat, but it's also hilarious and inventive in a way that reminds us why the show caused such a ruckus when it debuted. If you'd asked me before the movie if I thought cartoon genitalia was a good idea, I'd have roundly rejected it, but then I'd have to apologize now, because I would have been horribly, horribly wrong.
As the plot gathers steam, Homer's obnoxious, one-dimensional moronity takes center stage. This is disappointing, because his exasperating dumbness is one of the problems people have with latter seasons.
Here, though, it's a linchpin. For once, his selfishness has consequences. Bart looks for a father figure, and Marge begins to question their marriage. Genuine emotion is something the show has lost, and here, as then, it anchors all the craziness as Homer fights to regain his family and save the city he's put in such danger.
Likewise, the show's other present-day faults -- cheap gags and self-serving celebrity appearances -- are turned on their head. Green Day's in the movie because, uh, evidently someone thinks they're cool, but Tom Hanks' inherent likeability is used as nasty satire of government corruption. It's not quite as vital as it once was, but it's still daring, subversive in a way few things are.
It must have been hard to come up with a "Simpsons" movie when any given 22-minute episode might have supervillains, the end of Springfield, or alien invasions, but "The Simpsons Movie" is big enough and funny enough to earn the jump from TV to movies. The credits joke about a sequel, but why not? If the recent seasons were as consistently good as this movie, there wouldn't be nearly as many complaints about them.
As a curmudgeonly "this show hasn't been anything special for a decade"-style fan, though, I can't help but be a little disappointed. Here they've brought back almost all the show's old heavy hitters, and they still can't capture the magic it once had.
(This isn't just the nostalgia talking, either, no matter what Matt Groening has to say about how we only remember the good parts of the old episodes and forget the forgettable parts. We have DVDs now, sir! When you watch seasons 3-8 half a dozen times a year -- theoretically speaking, of course; no one could possibly be nerdy enough to have watched it so much they know the Simpsons' address has alternately been 742, 1342, and at least one other number, let alone care enough to call his equally-obsessed friend to confirm which number came first -- you're constantly reminded just how much better the classic episodes were!)
It's strange to feel let down by a movie I'd recommend to anyone. It's stranger yet to sit in a theater filled with laughing kids who probably first became fans around the same time I started questioning why I was still watching.
I think, in my heart of hearts, I always thought "The Simpsons" might one day return to the peaks that made it such a crucial part of my life. As much as I liked "The Simpsons Movie," it's clear now that's never going to happen. After 18 years, it's turned into a different show. It's time to stop pining for how it was and enjoy it for what it's become.