When was the last time a movie had the catalyst for its story set in church? The last one I remember is “The Blues Brothers” in 1980. “The Simpsons Movie,” now playing, really begins its story in the midst of a church service, and what happens there sets up everything to follow.
“The Simpsons Movie,” of course, is based on the FOX cartoon series about Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie. For 19 years, this dysfunctional family has been giving us cutting-edge satire set in that mythic town of Springfield. In those years they have tackled everything from Bart selling his soul to Mr. Burns being offered three-eyed fish for supper.
The show relies on the conventions of situation comedy, with the stuff of everyday life being funny. The family has a wacky neighbor, Ned Flanders, who is a widower and evangelical. Homer works for Mr. Burns, an archetypal robber baron for our day. Marge is a stay-at-home mom who struggles to keep her family fed, both physically and spiritually.
Which brings us back to the movie. It begins with a concert on Lake Springfield, where Green Day is playing on a barge on the lake. But when the barge sinks because pollution in the lake eats it up, the town comes together for a funeral at the church.
Rev. Lovejoy is about to begin the service when the Simpsons pull up late in the parking lot. Homer complains that those who believe are really losers, but he changes his tune when he comes in and discovers that the congregation overheard what he said.
Rev. Lovejoy starts over and tells the congregation that he is going to ask them to speak. “The word of God is in all of us,” he says. A light shines down from heaven and hits Homer’s father, Abe. Abe goes into what can best be described as a Three Stooges epiphany. He tells the congregation of the coming doom. There are creatures with a thousand eyes, he says, while repeatedly saying, “Eepa!” Homer quickly gets Abe up and hustles him and the family out the door.
Homer wants to dismiss this as Abe having a “senior moment.” Marge does not, for she believes it was God warning the community that something bad is going to happen. Which brings up an important part of “The Simpsons”–Marge believes. Her faith is deep and genuine. She is not a person who goes to church on Sunday and lives like she never heard a thing on Monday. Marge agonizes over her spiritual life and that of her family, especially Homer.
Homer is always at the center of every problem, bumbling his way into every bad thing that happens in Springfield. Here, he puts a silo of pig waste into the lake, which makes it super toxic.
And as it turns out, Abe’s “Eepa” was really a reference to the EPA, headed in the movie by Russ Cargill, a retired CEO of a multinational corporation, who wants “to give back, but not the money.” Cargill gets the president to authorize a dome to be placed over the town to keep the toxins in, along with the people. When it’s learned that Homer caused the toxicity, the town turns into a vigilante mob that wants to kill the family, which puts another set of events in motion.
“The Simpsons Movie” is funny, with several laugh-out-loud moments, but it doesn’t deepen anyone’s understanding of the characters. In fact, Homer tells audience members at the beginning that they are chumps for paying for something they can get on TV. Furthermore, many of the TV episodes are funnier than this movie and hold a better message.
The movie fills the hour and a half with lots of great gags, but the underlying story and message just don’t come through with the edge of past episodes. Spiritually speaking, many episodes are much more powerful. As to political satire, many others hit harder than this movie.
What this movie does best is introduce the novice to “The Simpsons,” one of the most important shows in television history.
Mike Parnell is pastor of Beth Car Baptist Church in Halifax, Va.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for irreverent humor throughout.
Director: David Silverman
Writers: Matt Groening, James L. Brooks, Al Jean, Ian Maxtone-Graham, George Meyer, David Mirkin, Mike Reiss, Mike Scully, Matt Selman, John Swartzwelder, and Jon Vitti
Voices: Homer: Dan Castellaneta; Marge: Julie Kavner; Bart: Nancy Cartwright; Lisa: Yeardley Smith; Mr. Burns: Harry Shearer; Apu: Hank Azaria.
The movie’s official Web site is here.
BOOK REVIEW: The Gospel According to The Simpsons
Michael Parnell is pastor of Temple Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. He is married and has two boys. His love is for movies, and he can be found in a theater most Fridays.