If you pay attention to the average Wall Street analyst covering the Hollywood beat, you’ll know that two things are true in Hollywood:
1. Cartoons are just for kids
2. Audiences aren’t interested in 2-D, hand-drawn animation any more.
This explains why the adult-themed, hand-drawn Simpsons Movie was one of this year’s rare summer blockbusters and has racked up nearly $183 million in US ticket sales alone so far.
After many years of gestation and an increasing sense from hardcore Simpsons fans that the TV show was losing its touch, The Simpsons Movie came to theaters and proved that there’s plenty of life left in the durable franchise. The movie is now out on DVD and stands head-and-shoulders above all its competition. Even accounting for the “end of the year halo effect,” The Simpsons Movie may well be the best animated DVD released this year. No other DVD comes close in balancing an excellent movie with a high-quality presentation and a set of extras that are really worth your time.
In The Simpsons Movie, Homer does something stupid that jeopardizes his marriage with Marge and threatens their beloved town of Springfield. Meanwhile, Bart does crazy, reckless things and Lisa’s well-meaning earnestness is met with almost complete apathy by everybody else in the town. Like many episodes of the TV show, The Simpsons Movie isn’t really about where you’re going as much as it’s about how you’re getting there, and in this movie, how we get there is through the most hilarious route possible. The movie pulls in an incredible number of disparate elements, each of which leads seamlessly to the next, but ending up somewhere sharply different from where you started. This is another element borrowed from the TV show, but executed flawlessly for the movie’s entire 87-minute length.
The entire cast and crew of The Simpsons pulled out all the stops to make sure that the movie didn’t feel like an overlong episode of the TV show, and they succeeded marvelously. Despite being three times longer than an episode of the show, the movie never flags or bogs down. The movie also exploits its widescreen format to the full, pushing the animation teams to produce some truly beautiful work. In recruiting Rough Draft Studios, The Simpsons Movie acquired the skillset on display on Futurama of melding 3-D CGI with 2-D cel animation, and the results are stunning and gorgeous. The familiar cast of voice actors matches the writers, directors, and animators in intensity, turning in truly outstanding performances. Their splendid comic timing is almost taken for granted after 19 years, but the entire cast really gets a chance to dig deep for some genuinely moving moments. Finally, the movie can push the boundaries with gags that would never pass muster with Broadcast Standards and Practices, and yet avoids the crassness that afflicts all too many American animated feature films.
However, despite its big-screen successes, The Simpsons Movie is practically made for home video. The eye-popping attention to detail, especially in the massive crowd scenes, can’t be fully appreciated without frequent use of freeze-frame. They’re really not kidding when they say they tried to include every single character that’s ever been in the show. Hardcore fans will no doubt enjoy freeze-framing to identify all the background characters, while more casual Simpsons fans (such as myself) won’t mind pausing just to marvel at how much work went into these scenes.
The rewind button on your DVD remote will also end up getting a workout, since you’ll often need to stop the movie and back up while you’re watching it. Usually, this is to catch a line you missed because you were laughing too hard to get it the first time, which is another reason why The Simpsons Movie is perfect for home video. The Simpsons‘ writing staff is the America’s Test Kitchen of television comedy, re-writing scripts dozens of times and cutting a joke as soon as it stops getting a laugh. Considering the length of time the movie was in progress, the gags in The Simpsons Movie are the jokes that were still funny after the 100th or 200th time, giving The Simpsons Movie more replay value than any other movie released this year. There are plenty of jokes that are funny because of surprise, but the real surprise is how many of those jokes are still funny even when you know exactly what’s coming.
It also helps that the cast and crew has been working at the show long enough to give them both a real sense of ownership and pride in their work. Anybody who believes that the Simpsons crew is simply phoning it in for the paycheck should listen to both of the audio commentary tracks for the movie, which is the third reason why The Simpsons Movie is perfect for home video. It’s rare to find a DVD commentary track worth listening to at all, but The Simpsons Movie is blessed with two. The first commentary packs producer/writers James L. Brooks, Matt Groening, Al Jean, and Mike Scully; director David Silverman; and voice actors Dan Catellaneta and Yeardley Smith into a recording booth. The directors commentary brings Silverman back to talk with animation directors Mike B. Anderson, Steven Dean Moore, and Rich Moore. The first thing that’s crystal clear in both commentaries is that the crew of The Simpsons still truly loves the show and takes it very seriously, but the second is that The Simpsons Movie was a massive undertaking for everyone involved. The first commentary track pulls the neat trick of pausing the movie on several occasions to talk about specific scenes in more depth, which is impressive for the technical achievement and for really making good use of the extra time. It’s also nearly as funny as the movie in places. The second, directors commentary track may not be as overtly humorous, but it’s a real gold mine for serious animation fans, giving you even more moments to freeze-frame to appreciate the amazingly subtle character animation and staging throughout the movie. As they point out, it’s really not true to say that the animation of The Simpsons is poor or crude. It’s may be simpler and less ornate, but there’s as much or more raw animation skill on display here as in anything out of Disney or Japan.
The anamorphic widescreen transfer on the DVD is beautiful, and mated nicely with impressive 5.1 soundtracks of the DTS and Dolby Digital varieties. The commentary tracks are easily worth the price of admission, which is good since most of the other extras are pretty lightweight. In order of most valuable to least, we get all the trailers for the movie, several deleted scenes, and promotional bits from The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and American Idol. The promotional bits aren’t really necessary (especially if you don’t really care about late-night talk shows or “reality” TV), except for the parody of the famous “Let’s Go to the Lobby” animated short that used to run before a lot of movies. Most of the deleted scenes also prove to have been best left on the cutting room floor, with the possible exception of the one with the sausage truck. However, it’s worth pointing out that the movie had the money and freedom to fully animate scenes that were eventually cut, while most other animated movies can only provide “deleted” scenes in the form of storyboards or animatics. There are also a few little amusing bits created specifically for the home video presentation. The surprise of those is easily the best part, so let’s just say that you ought to pay attention to the bits of the DVD that you normally ignore, like the animated introductions and the FBI warnings. Searching around on the DVD menus will also turn up a few gems, one of which is even funnier than the Jay Leno or American Idol extras. The DVD even manages to do something funny with its paper insert, even if it’s mostly advertising rather than a proper booklet with a chapter listing.
Ironically, the success of the movie compared with recent episodes of the TV show may make one wonder whether The Simpsons would be better off following the direct-to-video path blazed by Futurama out of necessity. The movie clearly benefited from having a bit more time, both in terms of production time and running time. The staff still loves the show, and the box office receipts clearly show that there are plenty of Simpsons fans willing to pay for their Springfield fix. Getting out of the weekly rat-race of TV schedules and into DTV might be the best way to keep The Simpsons going in the long run.
In either case, The Simpsons Movie is a runaway success as a film and as a home-video release, and easily earns its place on the DVD shelves of Simpsons fans of all degrees of intensity, or for fans of animation in general.