Review: The Simpsons Movie

It is hard to believe, but The Simpsons are twenty years old! Equally odd is that this longest continuously syndicated animated cartoon in American history went twenty years without hitting the big screen. If Simpsons fans were anxious, then their long nightmarish wait is thankfully over. Moreover, I can report that I literally cannot recall ever laughing harder at a full-length animated movie than I did at The Simpsons Movie.

It helps of course to have such an established cast of characters that we all know and love. Yes, we know and love them all, from Sideshow Bob to Crusty the Clown to Moe the Bartender. This 87-minute movie works pretty much all of them in, although some characters like Mr. Burns shows up only tangentially. The writers wisely chose to go for lots and lots of gags rather than worry about whether all their characters get sufficient screen time. From the 20th Century Fox credits at the beginning where Martin Prince shows up singing along with the tune (from the middle of the zero) to the closing credits (stick around until the end) the laughs rarely stop. The Simpsons are on steroids in this movie, if that is possible.

I confess that I am a very sporadic viewer of The Simpsons television show. I lost my interest in watching episodic TV years ago. Like any animated cartoon, The Simpsons had its good episodes and weak episodes. In any event, it was not a compelling enough cartoon for me to watch religiously, particularly once the Internet age began. Besides, it was on Fox. Nuff said.

The producers could have taken the easy route making this movie. Thankfully, they decided to use the opportunity to its fullest. What you get is not just what make the Simpsons brilliant, but much, much more of what made them brilliant. Admittedly, when blown up on the big screen the things you tend not to notice when on TV, like the yellow skin of all the Simpson characters, can be distracting. Most likely, you will be too busy laughing to care.

The plot does not matter, but just in case you are curious, it goes something like this: Despite Lisa Simpson’s earnest efforts as Springfield’s top environmentalist, the residents are environmentally hostile. They turn Springfield into the most polluted city in America. After a decision by President Schwarzenegger, the EPA covers Springfield in an unbreakable plastic cone, dooming the trapped residents of Springfield. Maggie discovers a sinkhole in their backyard, which lets the Simpsons escape. This is good because after Homer disposes of his pet pig’s toxic waste in Lake Springfield (the final straw that brings down the EPA’s wrath) the town is out to lynch them. They move to the promised “country” of Alaska. Marital disharmony ensues. Eventually Homer figures the only way to redeem himself is to return and save Springfield. It is the usual nonsensical plot but of course serves an effective frame for the hilarity this movie is rife with.

If you are American, you have to love The Simpsons. At this point, the Simpsons are more American than apple pie. Almost every character is a gloriously memorable stereotype. The TV show is offensive and crass but the movie is much more offensive and crass. This is of course one of the keys to its success. Ironically, The Simpsons Movie, rather than being mediocre, is probably one of the best examples of an animated comedy in the last couple of decades. I cannot imagine being a devoted Simpsons fan and not owning a DVD of the movie. Even as a casual fan I am tempted to own the movie. Like most Simpsons TV shows, it is full of allusions to other movies and shows. I feel like I need repeated viewings to catalog all of them. Given a little time and distance, perhaps The Simpsons Movie will achieve something like cult status.

I was offended but loved every minute of it. The Simpsons and the crazy cast of characters populating the city of Springfield are all national treasures. They deserve immortalization in the Smithsonian right next to Archie Bunker’s chair.

It feels odd to rate a movie like this. As a comedy, it is in the top ten percent of those I have seen. Of course, if you are not a Simpson fan you probably will not like the movie as much. I give it 3.3 on my 4.0 scale.

Spirited Away: The Best Movie You Never Saw

I’d lay odds that you have never seen the movie “Spirited Away“.

The reason you haven’t seen it is probably because its release in the United States was extremely limited. Typically it could be found in a couple theaters deep in the major cities. Occasionally it could be found in a suburban multiplex. But it disappeared fairly quickly because, well, it was a foreign film. As a rule we Americans don’t go see foreign films, even when lovingly voiced over by the team at Disney, who felt a missionary zeal to bring the film to the United States.

Another reason you may have missed it is because it is an animated film. While animated films are more acceptable these days, people tend to show up at animated films with children in tow. It’s a fairly rare adult who goes to see an animated film with other adults only. This is an animated film for all folks. Anyone will enjoy it.

Others may have been turned off because it is “Anime”. Anime is a type of animated film invented in Japan. From my perspective it is noticeable because most of the characters have such large, oversized eyes. As you might expect anime plots and storylines tend to emphasize Japanese characters. This makes it even harder for Americans to get into it. But anime is catching on with teenagers. My daughter is into anime. Because she is I am exposed to the culture. And I was delighted (no tickled pink!) to discover “Spirited Away”.

In America we’ve come to associate great modern animation with computerized tricks. Films like “Shrek” and “Finding Nemo” can create animation that on a technical level is stunning. When joined with an excellent script, fine direction and great voice actors a few of these movies can take the genre to new heights. But in the 21st century creating animation with paints and cells seems incredibly old fashioned. But director Hayao Miyazaki, perhaps the greatest living animation director (and possibly of all time) proves that old-fashioned animation can still triumph over computer animation.

“Spirited Away” (2001) is very likely the best-animated film of all time. Period. Now clearly I have not seen every animated film out there. I can take or leave animated films. Still, one can recognize a masterpiece when you see it. There is no room for doubt here. “Spirited Away” is an animation masterpiece.

We Americans should be more open to foreign films. Films like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000) challenged our conventions that Hollywood knows best. That film absolutely deserved (but did not win) Best Picture. It lost, I suspect because it was a foreign film. If that alone weren’t a black mark there was also the fact that is was subtitled. There are often much, much better movies available if we have the courage to rent from the foreign films section of our local Blockbuster. Oh but wait… my Blockbuster doesn’t have a foreign films section. Yes, that’s the sad state of affairs around here. So your Blockbuster may not have “Spirited Away”. But it’s worth a call anyhow because if they have it you’ll want to rent it. But even if they don’t have it, it is easy to purchase online. You’ll have to trust me on this one: you’ll want the DVD. You’ll be inviting friends over to watch it with you. It is that good.

What should you know about the plot? You really don’t need to know much. It doesn’t matter because the film sucks you in from the first minutes. But in brief a prepubescent girl (Chihiro, who is called Sen through most of the film) moves into a new neighborhood in Japan with her parents. On their way to their new house they get lost and end up at what appears to be an abandoned amusement park. After passing through an underground tunnel and into the park slowly things start to get weird. Eventually it becomes clear that they have passed into a spirit world. Sen’s parents turn into pigs when they accidentally chow down on spirit food. Sen spends the rest of the movie trying to get her parents back and to go home.

This corner of the spirit world is a huge bathhouse where spirits of all types come to bathe and relax. Sen has to work in the lowliest of jobs simply to survive. The fact that she is a human who has passed into the spirit world is a major problem. She has to deal with a lot of discrimination and must grow up very quickly. You meet all sorts of fantastical spirits and creatures. Those who serve the bathhouse though at least look mostly human.

What I can’t really convey in mere worlds is the quality and depth of the animation. It is in a word: brilliant. Director Miyazaki is not just a terrific animator; he is a brilliant artist and storyteller too. His imagination just overflows with inventiveness and creative ideas. It is hard not to sit there with your mouth hanging open in sheer awe of his accomplishment. At the same time the story is deeply engaging. You find yourself totally sucked into Sen’s predicament. You are both charmed and appalled by the many spirits she encounters and her many adventures. You will be more than amazed; you will be stunned by what Miyazaki does with colors. The story does not just flow like a river, the film feels like a river flowing. The detail of the animation in every spot on the screen gives it a sense of realism that few animated films have achieved.

It’s the kind of movie that is so good you cry. It’s the sort of movie where when it ends you desperately want it to continue. It’s a movie that you have to share.

I’m doing my part. There is no way not to like it. If you thought the Wizard of Oz was inventive for its time, multiply that by 100. The Disney folks were so enchanted by the film that they left it completely unedited. They felt to edit even a single frame would be to deface a masterpiece. The English voiceovers are seamless and include the voices of David Ogden Stiers as the many armed master of the boiler room Kamaji and Suzanne Pleshette as the bathhouse owner Yubaba. Rent it or buy it today. And then spread the word.

2/5/13 – Belated rated 3.5 out of 4 stars.

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