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By Pete Vonder Haar | July 28, 2007

In its heyday, which I’m going to arbitrarily declare as seasons two through eight inclusive, “The Simpsons” was the best show on television. Bitingly satirical, deftly scripted, and genuinely hilarious, it was practically untouchable in terms of quality. From “Simpson and Delilah” to “Cape Feare” to “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” to – one of my personal favorites – “You Only Move Twice,” it was great time to be a “Simpsons” fan.

The actual point in time when the show began its plummet into mediocrity is debatable, but most everyone agrees “The Simpsons” is mostly a shell of its former self, running on repetitive gags (Homer gets another in an endless series of unlikely jobs), sending the family to an exotic location, visualizing the characters in the future, and trotting out a few more celebrity cameos. As far as 20th Century Fox is concerned, the show continues to sell DVDs and merchandise, so they appear content to let it coast along indefinitely, even as it drops further and further in the ratings.

Discussions about making a big screen version of the show began back in 1992, around the end of the third season. And perhaps if forefathers Matt Groening, James L. Brooks, and Sam Simon had produced a film during that time, it would’ve been met with more anticipation than “The Simpsons Movie” which, at first blush, seems like little more than a last desperate attempt to wring money from the cash cow as it limps into its 19th season.

Happily, this isn’t the case at all.

“The Simpsons Movie” is everything it has no right to be, based on the past several seasons: it’s funny, it’s smart, and it pokes fun at exactly the things it should (organized religion, big business, and audience itself). I left the theater wondering who the hell these writers were (15 of them, at last count), and what they’d done with the hacks that scripted crap episodes like “When You Dish Upon A Star” and that one where Homer gets raped by a panda.

As with many of the recent episodes, the plot focuses on Homer. In this case, a seemingly innocuous act (adopting a pig) leads to a catastrophic environmental incident that results in Springfield becoming the most polluted city on the planet and the EPA sealing it off in a giant dome. Naturally, the riot-prone citizens call for Homer’s blood, leading to a familiar Simpsons dilemma: stay and face the mob, or flee and worry about it later.

Then again, the plot really isn’t that important. What “The Simpsons Movie” really provides us with something the show hasn’t produced in years: jokes. There are more gags in five minutes of the movie than in the entirety of any episode since 1999. I don’t know if it’s attributable to the return of old school scripters like John Swartzwelder and George Meyer, or the fact that Groening took an interest in something more than cashing royalty checks and bitching about “Futurama’s” cancellation, but the movie is genuinely funny. The extreme situations and sitcom-like style of recent years are (mostly) cast aside for genuine satire and somewhat more realistic character interaction.

More than that, the movie is a feast for fans. Albert Brooks returns as the voice of EPA chief (and Michael Brown analog) Russ Cargill, there’s finally some closure to the disastrous attempt to jump Springfield Gorge, and many DVDs will be sold purely for the prospect of pausing the movie and spotting long-forgotten characters (Handsome Pete! Gabbo! Princess Kashmir in a Raquel Welch-style fur bikini!).

I admit, I had next to no expectations for “The Simpsons Movie,” and I’ve been watching the show since its first season. That it turned out to be as entertaining as it did is both a pleasant surprise and something of an annoyance. I mean, if they can make the movie this funny, then why the hell has the show been anything but for the better part of a decade? Perhaps they’ve been culling the best jokes for the movie every year, or maybe the movie itself was mostly written 15 years ago. Whatever the case, it’s nice to be an unrepentant Simpsons fan again, even if it’s only for a short time.

And I can’t wait to play Grand Theft Walrus.

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