Take Two

by LUKE BAUMGARTEN & r & & r & The Simpsons Movie & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he Simpsons Movie opens with its iconic cartoon-within-a-cartoon characters, Itchy and Scratchy, landing on the Moon. Itchy (the mouse) first skewers Scratchy with the American flagpole, then beats him with it, and finally uses it to shatter his helmet, leaving the moon's limited gravity to disgorge Scratchy's eye from its socket. Itchy returns to Earth, tells of the accident painting Scratchy's death as a horrible accident he tried to stop, and becomes president. Scratchy, though, isn't dead. Itchy chances to view the moon through his Oval Office telescope one evening and sees Scratchy holding a sign. "I'm telling," it reads.

The mouse panics, opens the nuclear football, sets it to "accidental launch" and sends the totality of America's nuclear armament hurtling directly at Scratchy. The cat sees it coming and his mouth drops open. The first warhead flies into it. Then a second, third, 10th, 50th, 100th until his head is very nearly the size of the moon itself and full of thousands of kilotons of nuclear explosive. A final warhead flies up, opens its tip exposing a boot on the end of a metal rod. The boot gently nudges the cat's ungainly maw and the whole thing explodes.

At about this point, Homer Simpson's big yellow head leaps into frame. "Boring," he says, the camera panning to reveal a movie theater. His family quickly hushes him. "Why are we paying for something we can watch for free on TV?" He asks incredulously.

At 87 minutes, The Simpsons Movie is just about as funny as four of the television episodes. With a little savvy channel changing (look, Ma, no TiVo), you can see four episodes of The Simpsons on TV any given night. I'm with Homer: Why indeed?

We already have the answer, though. The Itchy and Scratchy Movie has shown exactly why the filmmakers think The Simpson's Movie is worth it. Revisiting our formative years, but with a bigger budget, higher stakes, larger scale, in-jokes galore... a plot. Before they take us on a gratuitous nostalgia trip, they take the Simpsons on one.

Clever gag. It shows that, if nothing else, 18 years have taught Matt Groening and his team of 10 other writers the cynicism that builds when a beloved show runs a decade too long. It's exactly what we should have expected. That means, I guess it's all we could have honestly hoped.

The TV series hasn't been good in a long time. The best-case scenario was aging writers using considerably higher stakes and apparently infinite time to grope at the genius of their prime.

They catch hold of something more than half the time. The Eco-plot connects with and revisits many of the show's persistent themes (public apathy, religious dogma, fear of government, fear of people, imminent self-destruction). The marriage-on-the-rocks plot doesn't connect with anything. The Green Day cameo is trite. The Tom Hanks cameo is brilliant.

It's a good film but not great for the simple reason that it came in 2007 and not 1994. The majority of what made The Simpsons' seasons Three through, say, Seven shine so brightly in the collective consciousness is the sense that nothing that simultaneously smart and crass had ever graced network television. We've now had about 20 years of something exactly this smart and crass.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & fter the credits roll, the filmmakers stab at one last joke, a thoroughly stupid thing that destroys the show's longest-running gag (Maggie has never, in almost two decades, uttered a word, but does here) to cloyingly hint at a sequel. After 18 seasons and 87 minutes of film, Groening and company still overstay their welcome. (Rated PG-13)