Matt Greoning grew up in my hometown, went to high school with my aunt and by all accounts is a pretty weird dude. Doesn’t matter; his warped cartoon creation called The Simpsons still rocks. For nearly two decades, The Simpsons has parodied, pressed and pandered its way into mainstream audience’s hearts with an irreverent mix of political satire, potty humor and skewed family values. Until this year, however, that charm was limited to the TV, be it through its long-standing weekly series or a slew of licensed videogames. The Simpsons Movie, Greoning’s big-screen debut, perfectly captured the show’s wit and stretched it into a remarkably well-produced 90-minute feature that has now ironically found its way back to TV with its release on Blu-ray Disc.
The overall plot in The Simpsons Movie is pretty typical fare: Homer screws something up, Marge chastises him to no end, and by the “episode’s” conclusion everything is back to normal. But in the Movie, Homer’s screw-up is bigger, the humor is deeper, the picture is wider and the overall show and production quality are probably the best Greoning has produced to date.
In The Simpsons Movie, Homer’s stomach gets in the way of his conscience, with his selfish pursuit of a donut sale leading him to pollute Lake Springfield to such a degree that the Environmental Protection Agency drops an impermeable bubble over Springfield that entombs its residents for what appears to be eternity. After miraculously escaping the EPA’s evil clutches, the Simpsons move to Alaska to begin anew, only to find themselves flirting with divorce. Through a series of hilarious sequences, Homer of course regroups with his family and saves Springfield, but not before Bart builds an unexpected bond with Ned Flanders. Clearly The Simpsons Movie explores unfamiliar ground, both for the series and its family, but when the writing is this good and the production values are this high, such new territory feels more natural and expected than it does awkward.
Nowhere are the production values any higher than in the animation’s quality and 1080p picture. Presented in AVC MPEG-4 encoded video averaging between 34 and 43 mbps, the image quality in The Simpsons Movie is surpassed only by the Disney/Pixar films, and even then it might be a toss-up, considering the different animation styles. Where Pixar films have incredible depth and variety in their colors, The Simpsons Movie has such vibrant tones that you’d be hard-pressed to reproduce them on paper using real-life pastels, ink or crayons. What’s more, the outlines are so crisp and the animation so consistent that by the time the movie ends, it feels like the characters have a certain real-life quality to them. And no, that’s not just the Duff talking.
The audio is also well produced, with 5.1 DTS HD Lossless Master Audio (the core 1.5mbps core for this review), although there are two minor issues. First, any film that doesn’t include many special-effects sequences is seldom the best to test lossless audio. It’s not that the fidelity is bad; it’s just that one can really only benefit from uncompressed audio coming from three channels (front and center). The audio from those channels is great, but the inclusion of lossless audio is, well, a bit “lost” on films that don’t rely much on the two rear channels. The second issue is one of audio levels, as The Simpsons Movie struggles at times to find a middle ground. During the course of the film, we continually had to adjust the volume on our Denon receiver to increase the volume in quiet scenes or decrease volume in loud scenes. This can often be an issue in action films or suspense thrillers, but it’s not something we expected from The Simpsons Movie.
Another unexpected surprise, but one that was much more welcome, came with the bonus features. The Simpsons Movie includes not one but two commentary tracks. The first Commentary Track includes appearances by James Brooks, Matt Groening, Al Jean, Mike Scully, David Silverman, Dan Castellaneta and Yeardley Smith and was recorded before The Simpsons Movie ever released in theaters. Because the recording was done before the film had even released, everyone involved in this feature-length track is relaxed and conversational, giving the feature a very natural and free-flowing feel. In fact, in at least one instance they instruct the film to “pause” while they discuss a particularly lengthy aspect of the scene at hand. When they do this, the scene pauses and goes into grayscale, then resumes as normal when the speakers” explanation has concluded. This treatment gives the feature a feeling of being in the room with these folks as they were watching the movie, and if they didn’t laugh so much at their own jokes, it might be one of the best commentary tracks we’ve ever heard. The second Commentary Track, which features David Silverman, Mike B. Anderson, Steven Dean Moore and Rich Moore, is a bit more forgettable however, as it largely focuses on the “traditional” commentary-track features such as scene technicalities and nuts-and-bolts type production notes.
Outside of these two features, the rest of the 50 GB dual-layer disc is filled with only three more features, all of which are presented in 1080p but total just a hair more than 15 minutes in length. The first, Deleted Scenes (5:13), includes six brief scenes, two of which are basically minor extensions and one of which shows a different character design for the EPA’s Russ Cargill. Although mildly entertaining, these scenes were deleted or shortened for a reason.
Special Stuff (3:25) is a hodge-podge collection of various pre-release promotional elements for The Simpsons Movie, including Homer’s monologue on The Tonight Show, two sequences tied into American Idol, and a “Let’s All Go to the Lobby” sequence that’s comprised of perhaps the 12 most hilarious seconds in animated film. Well, if you have a dry sense of humor, which we do. The disc’s bonus features are rounded out by All Five Trailers (6:52) for The Simpsons Movie: the Announcement Trailer, Bunny Trailer 1, Bunny Trailer 2, The Line/Teaser Trailer and the Theatrical Trailer. All good stuff, to be sure, but watching all five in a row is probably more than most sane people can handle.
Then again, “sane” has never exactly been the best word to describe The Simpsons, and that certainly holds true for The Simpsons Movie and its release on Blu-ray Disc. With a surprisingly complex plot, outstanding animation and graphical fidelity, and one of the most insightful and natural commentary tracks we’ve heard, there’s very little for a Simpsons or Blu-ray fan to find fault with. A documentary or retrospective about The Simpsons as a series would have been nice, but perhaps Fox is holding that bonus feature for the sequel. Let’s just hope that second film isn’t another 18 years in the making; we might all be Grandpa Simpsons at that point.
– Jonas Allen