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The new "Simpsons Movie" begins with a movie within a movie. It's "Itchy and Scratchy: the Movie," which really makes it a fake-cartoon-television-series-turned-movie within a cartoon-television-series-turned-movie.

Right in the middle of it, Homer stands up in the theater and bellows, "I can't believe we all paid 10 bucks to see something that's free on TV!" As an opening salvo, it doesn't get much more dead-on, but it may also be an example of what Dave Chappelle used to call "keeping it real gone wrong."

"The Simpsons Movie" is strongest as satire and social commentary, but also way too sentimental for a movie based on a cartoon TV family. And this raises a skeleton in "The Simpsons'" closet: How do you satirize cartoon people and make the audience care about them too?

Mimicking our environmental concerns, the story centers on the pollution of Lake Springfield, with comically dire consequences. Lisa gives a presentation at a town hall meeting called "An Irritating Truth," in which her scissor-lift malfunctions and sends her crashing into the ceiling. A lot of the jokes spring up this way -- a timely aside on some social malfunction followed by a physical one. If you don't get the cerebral part, maybe you'll double over at the mallet bopping the forehead. The writers may know they are at times pandering, because there are a few moments when they excoriate themselves and the show with insider jokes.

"The Simpsons" has been the best satire, if not the best show, on television from its debut in 1989, at least until the arrival of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart." Until others picked up on its beat, it felt like a TV revolution, and "The Simpsons Movie" just isn't subversive or outrageous enough to do the same for cinema, which is sad because there's so much in that medium to go after.

Though there's plenty to chuckle at, there's nothing that rises above a standard TV episode; it feels like at most a padded special. By the end I thought Homer was right. I wished I'd saved my 10 bucks and waited for the DVD or the television airing. It's difficult to watch something that's making fun of society's ills for an hour and a half while it also sells out to them. (PG-13) 85 min.

S



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