It's very easy to make a bad adaptation of a much-loved TV series. British sitcoms have an especially poor record in this field, with the majority of adaptations feeling like extended episodes with none of the pacing or discipline of the original series. Whether you're trying to satisfy existing fans with a more expansive story, or trying to sell the characters to an unfamiliar audience, it is very, very easy to come a cropper when putting the small screen up on the big screen.
You would, therefore, have every cause for concern with The Simpsons Movie. On top of these narrative and structural problems, it is ripe for accusations surrounding the decline of the series and the accompanying explosion in merchandise. It would be easy to write the film off as an inevitable, cynical cash-in, with the only surprise being that it wasn't made a few years earlier. But while the film isn't going to win the series any new fans, it has enough good material to entertain those who stuck around.
The first thing to say about The Simpsons Movie is that it is not really a 'movie'. It is, like so many adaptations before it, an extended episode of the series, with similar stakes and a similar sense of self-containment. The characters' ambitions are small-scale but played out over a longer period of time, showing in detail what would normally be dealt with via editing or exposition on TV. Even with the high-quality animation and the decent pacing, it still doesn't feel entirely at home in 16x9.
This is consolidated by the fact that we have seen a lot of the film's plot points in previous series. While it is inevitable that long-running series will repeat themselves, many of the character developments are almost identical to those from stand-out episodes. Homer's adoption of Plopper the pig is akin to him adopting Pinchy the lobster in 'Lisa Get An 'A'', while Homer and Marge's fraying relationship is very similar to their falling-out in 'El Viaje Misterioso del Nuestro Jomer'. You could even argue that Green Day's self-deprecating cameo is simply a reworking of U2's appearance in 'Trash of the Titans', on account of the environment theme.
The film attempts to get around this by increasing the number of characters that appear on screen. While a typical episode will revolve around The Simpsons and maybe a dozen or so others at most, in one shot we get more than 320 different characters making an appearance. But while this move gives us an idea of Springfield's scale, it prevents any one of these characters from gaining the depth they need to hold our attention beyond a couple of quick gags.
You could make the argument that if the film had confined the action to just a few characters that it would have disappointed fans, and not given the film enough distinction over the standard-length episodes to warrant its existence. This is understandable considering the huge following The Simpsons has: it's very hard to please your fans when everyone has a different favourite character. But it doesn't alter the fact that scale is not a substitute for substance, and reducing dozens of much-loved characters down to mere cameos is a worse compromise than giving a few of them a good part at the expense of everyone else.
The other big character problem relates to Homer Simpson himself. In his 1990s incarnation, Homer did a lot of stupid things, but all his mistakes were grounded in the idea that he was well-meaning and likeable, simply lacking the brain power to make good on his intentions. But Homer has grown so outlandish in his mistakes, and so incapable of learning from them, that he is less easy to like as a leading man. His short attention span and flippant, underlying idiocy is one of the main ways in which the plot is stretched out, as he takes an hour to do what the smarter, earlier version of him would have accomplished in 20 minutes. In short, we spend more time laughing at him then we do with him, and that's not a good way to develop a likeable lead.
Up to now you'd have every reason to believe that I hate The Simpsons Movie. Having criticised its structure and its characters, you might be asking how I can give the film so high a rating, just as I gave Cinderella a pass in spite of strong reservations about the messages it sends. With Cinderella, the film's visual beauty and entertaining supporting cast were enough to remedy or at least overlook its central problems. The Simpsons Movie succeeds for a simpler reason: it's funny.
The acid test of any comedy is to make you laugh, and The Simpsons Movie does have a string of good, funny gags to sustain its simple premise. The jokes come in reasonably quick succession, and while not all of them hit their target, they keep up the pace to such an extent that we are not always conscious of the story being stretched so thin. However hit-and-miss the series has become, David Silverman and the writers deserve at least some credit for holding a single comic conceit together for the best part of 90 minutes.
The jokes in The Simpsons Movie come in many different shapes and sizes, which helps to explain why not all of them hit the mark. Some of the references have already dated, with the whole President Schwarzenegger shtick falling flat even with the best efforts of Albert Brooks. Likewise the 'Spider-pig' and 'Harry Plopper' jokes are passingly funny but not especially memorable. On the other hand, the physical humour is pretty much spot-on, whether it's Homer sticking a hammer in his eye, nailing himself to the roof, or getting bashed between a rock and A Hard Place.
The premise of The Simpsons Movie is one of the reasons so many of these jokes work. The series has often borrowed liberally from The Twilight Zone, such as 'The Genesis Tub' segment of 'Treehouse of Horror VII'. Having the whole town enclosed by a dome is a classic science fiction set-up, allowing both for character comedy from the claustrophobia and for satire of the people who caused such a state of affairs. The story is still easily distracted, so that if you come looking for Logan's Run or Lord of the Flies with jokes, you won't find them. But by containing the action, at least for the majority of characters, it prevents the film from going totally off the rails like so many of its predecessors.
The Simpsons Movie is at its best when it has the confidence to play to its original strengths. As the show has become more successful, it has felt the need to try and please everyone, meaning that it has steadily lost whatever edginess it once had. But both Albert Brooks' character and the cameo by Tom Hanks harken back to its heyday, where it punctured the egos of US presidents and celebrities without fear of repercussions. The humour is still very broad (the "mad without power" line being a good example), but at least there is a point behind both the celebrity presence and the political storyline.
On top of all that, the film is very nicely animated. The style of The Simpsons has been replicated very well, which adds to the televisual feel while making the film look suitably glossy. Subtle changes has been made to aid the transition, such as giving the characters shadows for the first time, and there are certain sections which benefit from a wider colour palette. Certainly the film looks more impressive than it would had done had Silverman reverted to the rougher style of the earlier seasons.
The Simpsons Movie is good disposable fun that should at least partially satisfy fans of the series. If you stop and think about any part of it for too long, then its structural problems will dent your ability to enjoy the film as a whole. But thankfully the jokes come fast and reliably enough so that this doesn't happen very often. It isn't perfect, and it won't win the show any new fans, but there are many worse ways in which to spend 90 minutes.