Well, for once, the rich white man is in power.
— Montgomery Burns (Harry Shearer)
“I’m the mascot of an evil corporation!” So says Bart Simpson (Nancy Cartwright) while hanging upside down and wearing a black bra — resembling mouse ears — on his head. It’s an old joke, but still a good one, especially given the perennially perverse, not-quite-a-mascot status of Bart, whose family has held down a popular and profitable series for another evil corporation for nearly 19 years.
The beauty of Bart is his plasticity. This despite his famously unchanging age (10, as Jon Stewart recently noted) and attitude (ornery), as well as his refusal to kowtow to authority or learn his lessons. (“I will not illegally download this movie,” he writes on the classroom chalkboard, just, you know, to put the idea out there.) Everyone expects as much from Bart: when he dangles in the doorway of a train car doorway with the bra on his head, Marge (Julie Kavner) doesn’t bat an eye, only wonders what he’s been doing to entertain himself on the ride from Alaska to Springfield (more on that in a minute). But, as predictable as Bart may be, he’s also a ready emblem of pride, resentment or resistance, suited to almost any identity or cause, from Black Bart and Gay Bart to Carny Bart and Bart the Hall Monitor.
In The Movie, Bart again offends, worries, cracks wise, and wreaks havoc, just like he does on TV, only bigger. He’s endured by Marge, abused by Homer (Dan Castellaneta), and begrudged by Lisa (Yeardley Smith), and even befriended by Ned Flanders (Harry Shearer), who sympathizes with the boy’s desire for a “good dad.” The longer-form storyline focuses Bart and Homer’s tumultuous relationship through thematic lenses familiar to Simpsons fans: government corruption, environmental pollution, religious fervor, and of course, the love of donuts. The film maintains the show’s naughty tenor, and manages a surprisingly tight plot, with clever enough connections between set-up and pay-off.
As to the first, Itchy and Scratchy open in a film within the film, engaged in a typically raucous contest that leads to Itchy’s election as U.S. president, whereupon he shoots a nuclear arsenal at the cat. Neither the political commentary nor the awesome mayhem impresses Homer, who rises from his movie theater seat to complain that he’s paid money to see what he “gets for free on TV.” Anticipating your concern naming it, Homer (who goes on to call you a “sucker” for paying cash money for this experience) reminds you here that he may be a doofus, big-mouthed and self-righteous, but he’s also irresistibly self-aware, even when he’s not. Oh-so-neatly, The Simpsons Movie not only sticks a pin it its own much-hyped special-eventness, but also puts it to those other Big Explosion movies that inundate the summer schedule.
Homer’s domestic disorder is only beginning, of course, and leads more or less directly to the pay-off. Feeling out of place at home, as he so often does, Homer finds himself besotted by a pig, whose excessive production of crap leads directly to Homer’s Big Mistake (a variation of the one he makes in so many TV episodes), bringing woe unto all of Springfield and, especially, Marge. Deemed the “most polluted city in the history of the planet,” Springfield is duly locked down beneath an impenetrable see-through dome (almost immediately, the commercial gags appear: citizens drink Trapuccinos and shop at Dome Depot), . The decision to do so comes straight from President Schwarzenegger, who declares he needn’t even peruse the options placed before him by EPA autocrat Cargill (Albert Brooks), that indeed, “I was elected to lead, not to read!” And again: Easy Targets R Us.
It so happens that Lisa’s interested in the environment (having perfected her own version of the Al Gore slide show, hers named “An Irritating Truth”), so that Homer’s disposal of the pig’s inexplicably toxic waste into Springfield’s lake is an especial blow to her. Perhaps worse, it complicates her budding romance with the new kid in town, Colin (Maile Flanagan), an adorable, pro-environment Irish kid whose father, he says more than once, is not Bono. No matter his lineage, Lisa’s smitten (“He’s perfect!” she thrills), but soon enough she’s chased out of town, along with the rest of her family, once the pitchforks- and torches-wielding Springfieldians learn Homer’s to blame for their detention.
The chaos is filtered through the sort of comedy that has characterized the Late Simpsons, skewering that’s alternately broad and precise, topical and fanciful, a mostly pleasant mix that exasperates old-school fans and satisfies less committed viewers. Punctuated by jokes at the expense of Fox News, organized religion, and animated penguins), Bart seeks his own equilibrium, rejecting the bad dad in favor of the good one. Bart’s enough of a cynic not to be swayed easily, but when Ned offers him hot coca with whipped cream, chocolate shavings, and a cookie, well, it’s too much to resist. Bart begins imagining what life would be like not being throttled or smacked or mocked. When Homer convinces him to skateboard through the streets naked (initiating a series of “Bart’s doodle” sight gags), then decides he’d rather send his son to jail than confess his part in the disturbance, Bart starts to think maybe his father-son experience is neither normal nor inevitable. And so Bart, the perennial underachiever, begins tentatively to explore other possibilididdlies.
No surprise, Bart’s search for sane patriarchy is doomed. Flanders means well, takes him fishing and doesn’t slap him, and, in Bart’s own words, is “the same at night as he is in the morning.” Homer’s inconsistency is legendary, though Flanders is no slouch when it comes to extremities; here he mini-vacuums up crumbs from his own sons’ nighttime snacks, and laments — so very good-naturedly — that one of them has “the devil’s curly hair.”
If you understand the Simpsons to be at once the most egregious and exemplary dysfunctional family in U.S. popular culture, Marge’s stalwart strength and Lisa’s usual good sense aren’t nearly so spectacular as Bart and Homer’s bizarrely symphonic pandemonium. As representatives of an insatiable, reckless, willfully ignorant population, father and son offer a kind of backwards-identification for viewers: you laugh at them, feel better about yourself for not being them, and yet recognize them too. Though they may live extra large in The Movie, the comedy they act out is no more politically pointed or funny than it is on TV. The same as he ever was, Bart’s still open to what you want from him.