The Simpsons Movie

At long last, after nearly two decades of waiting, it’s here. A cultural event long thought limited to the daydreams of diehard fans has finally seen the light of day: the DVD commentary track for The Simpsons Movie.

Oh, and the movie itself, which came out last summer, was fairly anticipated, too. But the pop-culture hype cycle has reached cruising speed, and last summer’s culmination of a two-decade buildup fades into the standard four-month, theater-to-home turnaround. The quick DVD rebirth of The Simpsons Movie, while absolutely standard, somehow feels a little sad, too — an admittance that this cultural event was as fleeting as any, a reminder that you rushed out and saw it on its first weekend, laughed a lot, and then it was all over.

That’s where the commentary track comes in. Hardcore Simpsons nerds have learned to anticipate new DVD box sets even when they lack all-time favorite episodes simply because Matt Groening and company have set out to provide informative and funny commentary tracks for every single episode of the show ever produced (currently numbering somewhere in the 400s). The opportunity to hear an all-star (for the nerds, at least) round-up of Simpsons brain-trust members, including Groening and producer James L. Brooks, longtime writer-producers Al Jean and Mike Scully, and cast members Dan Castellaneta and Yeardley Smith, talk about the show’s first foray into theaters, then, will be the dominant interest for most fans.

They won’t be disappointed; though it was recorded, like many feature commentaries, prior to the film’s release (and Jean promises a future post-release commentary full of “finger-pointing and apologies”), the lack of hindsight is almost worth it for the fresh-off weariness we get instead. Fans will be especially happy to hear about earlier incarnations of the movie’s thousand or so gags — stuff that was tweaked, replaced, or outright scrapped during the script’s dozens upon dozens of rewrites — though they’ll also feel a little disappointed to find only some of those excised bits on the DVD’s collection of deleted scenes.

The endless writing process comes into broader play, too, when the crew discusses shaping the story of the film. One of the commentary’s best features is that the producers occasionally pause the film so they have time to elaborate on how and why they decided that the Simpsons would be leaving Springfield for Alaska, or the delicate balance of coarseness and sweetness that was apparently tipped more towards the former in earlier drafts.

Though the film does indeed harness a strong emotional core, none of the writers quite acknowledge that it is a story used in about a season’s worth of previous (and, presumably, future) Simpsons episodes, here writ extra-large: Homer loses Marge’s trust, putting their marriage in jeopardy until he can learn to be less selfish and win her back.

Even after all those episodes, this story works remarkably well in the film; it’s just hard not to think about how its impact would’ve been even greater ten or even five years ago. Jean’s note that this movie was intended to work just as well, if not better, for people who aren’t particularly familiar with the television show may be a tacit concession of the story’s familiarity, but that’s all we hear on the subject.

For the more technically inclined, there’s also an animators’ commentary in which the artists go into greater detail about the creation of the film’s strikingly, almost startlingly beautiful widescreen animation. The intentional simplicity of Groening’s original drawings have been polished, two decades later, into something downright stylish, and the movie benefits from the kind of animator attention twenty-two-minute episodes can’t afford.

The other extra DVD content is mostly debris from the summer’s promotional blitz: Homer on The Tonight Show, the family on American Idol, and so on; amusing, but more promotional than the tangents and ancillaries on, say, a Will Ferrell or Judd Apatow DVD. The too-brief deleted scenes add a few terrific jokes, mostly centered around Springfield’s descent into chaos after being encased in a domed quarantine; it’s more familiar ground, as The Simpsons has always excelled at pointing out society’s potential for devolution into fiery mob rule, but on a more epic scale.

That’s actually The Simpsons Movie in a nutshell; it may be familiar, but it’s bigger and visually richer than what we’re used to, as well as funnier than many of the show’s more recent episodes (though not as brilliant as any 90-minutes from seasons three through eight). If, a few months later, it feels a little anticlimactic, it’s still remarkable that these characters can still make you feel something at all.

RATING 7 / 10