Too Much of a Once-Good Thing

The Simpsons stopped being special seasons and seasons ago. The movie never starts.

The Simpsons is smart satire. The Simpsons is laugh-out-loud funny. The Simpsons is the greatest television show of all time. Or so they keep telling us.

All the cool kids ' and critics ' love to love the show (and have for all its 18 seasons), making it rather hard to go against the fandom flow. To be fair, The Simpsons did once change the landscape, opening the prime-time door for coarser comedy and a sort of good-natured cartoon cynicism. When the crude animation and its for-the-time crude jokes debuted on the fledgling Fox network in 1989 after a short run as cartoon shorts on The Tracey Ullman Show, Middle America laughed at its own reflection and made the series a hit. Sure, the family construct was pretty straightforward: Bart was a brat, Homer a dolt, and Marge and Lisa long-suffered. But The Simpsons as a whole seemed intelligent and daring, poking sly fun at the oddities of suburban life and the affects and affectations of pop culture, as well as taking an occasional side-swipe at a certain brand of holier-than-thou religious hypocrisy.

Time marches on, however. And it really didn't take all that long for the show's status to evolve from snarky outsider to establishment entertainment. No one really seemed to notice, though, that the show was growing safer, sillier and more and more recycled. The characters don't change, and they don't grow. (In Bart's case, quite literally, as an exasperated Jon Stewart pointed out to show creator Matt Groening when he recently appeared on The Daily Show.) And yet people still love to talk about The Simpsons like the show is the second coming of social satire, like it isn't now lame and tame and incestuously self-referential, like the writers' smirking, overzealously vaudevillian senses of humor haven't arisen and choked the last bit of life right out of the series. Whatever envelope the series' humor once pushed has long since been quietly posted to more daring climes (current destination being small-town South Park, Colorado).

Yes, this particular, once-nigh-invincible emperor is as naked as the big-screen Bart, streak-skateboarding down Springfield's main drag on a dare from his father. Cute, quaint, hardly cutting edge. The Simpsons Movie, in short, is just one super-long episode: occasionally smileworthy, momentarily heartwarming, overly familiar. It's as if we've seen it all before. Oh wait, that's right ' after all these years, we probably have.

The main plot of The Simpsons Movie revolves around Springfield's ever-worsening environmental quality of life. Do-gooder Lisa (Yeardley Smith) has been campaigning to clean up the local lake, and it seems to be going relatively well until Homer (Dan Castellaneta) sends a silo of his pet pig's waste splashing in. (He does it, unsurprisingly, to get to free doughnuts, a moldy Simpsons joke if ever there were one.) The pig poop tips the ecological scale to the truly scary side, and President Schwarzenegger (Harry Shearer), egged on by creepy EPA head Russ Cargill (Albert Brooks) decides to dome the town for the greater good. The residents of Springfield ' Marge (Julie Kavner) foremost among them ' are none too happy to discover that they now live in a giant snow globe and come after Homer en masse when his illegal dumping is discovered. Bart (Nancy Cartwright), meanwhile, has grown increasingly disillusioned with his dad, seeking solace in cheery, churchy next-door neighbor Ned Flanders (Shearer). Can Homer possibly save Springfield and his family all at the same time?

Like any Simpsons episode, the action is flanked by thousands of asides and one-liners; familiar faces pop up on the city sidewalks and in crowd shots only to disappear after delivering at most a handful of words of dialogue. There are plenty of funny lines. When Lisa discovers her dad's treachery, Marge has to pull her away from punching him. But I'm so angry, Lisa explains. "You're a woman," her mother says in her gentlest tone. "You can hold on to it forever." But for every whip-smart joke like that, there are four or five belabored Homer moments, which we've come to expect, and a good number of belabored Bart moments, which is a most unfortunate surprise. Freed from the constraints of television, these two don't get more interesting ' in fact, the large format reveals just how uninteresting they have both become through the years.

None of which will matter to the hardest core Simpsons fans. Love the show? Then love the movie. It's comfortable, and that's a descriptor used with all the contempt of double-digit seasons of familiarity. Bigger doesn't necessarily make anything better, and there is absolutely such a thing as too much of a once-very-good thing.