Cowanbunga, dude 'Simpsons Movie' takes full advantage of its big budget

The simpson Movie (PG 13) *** (3 Stars)

After 18 staggeringly successful seasons, "The Simpsons" TV series is a fixture of American pop culture. The only other episodic series to last longer is "Gunsmoke," a live-action Western saddled with ever-aging actors and their respective characters.

Animated characters are, thankfully, unaffected by Father Time, something that allows the Simpson family to remain constant and unchanged in our collective memory. As the last few seasons have made painfully clear, it also prevents them from ever showing much of an arc.

"The Simpsons Movie" is not an extended episode of the show, but rather a bona fide feature film that firmly stands on its own merits. Like the "South Park" movie, it has a plot that would never work on episodic TV. It's loaded with character development, big-screen sized action and arc aplenty.

The only gripe is that the movie assumes the viewer knows the entire history of the show. If you've never seen an episode of the series, you'll be completely lost. Then again, if you've never seen the show, you'll probably have zero interest in the seeing the film.

"The Simpsons" series is rude, crude, blisteringly funny, astutely topical and surprisingly moving. Not everyone likes it, and that's good. The writers cloak pointed social barbs behind a mask of school-boy giddiness and broad, pratfall humor.

The movie never loses its core connection with the show, but at the same time takes full advantage of its slightly more risque, PG-13 possibilities, longer running length and feature-film budget.

Throughout the production process, the movie's plot has been a well-kept secret, and it's easy to see why Fox studios went to such great lengths to keep it under wraps. It's not quite on the same level as the sometimes hysterical release of the final "Harry Potter" novel, but in its own way, it deserves equally mum non-disclosure from the media.

Here's what you can know going in: At least one character dies. One family member finds true love. One has an extended nude scene. One remains exactly the same. One shows far more emotional depth than usual, and yet another has a spiritual epiphany.

There are several inclusions of stunt casting, including a surprise U.S. president, an Oscar-winning performer and a perennially hip band performing its own indelible version of the show's theme song.

Also, be sure to get there on time to catch the opening scene - a science-fiction short featuring "Itchy and Scratchy."

Visually, the movie is impressive. Considering the show's mostly elementary artwork, this is saying a lot. The movie's graphics are as close as you can get to 3-D without requiring goofy glasses to get the desired effect. Director David Silverman (who has helmed nearly two dozen episodes of the show) and the artists amp everything up and make the event special without losing sight of its humble roots.

Creator Matt Groening and series co-producer James L. Brooks handle the bulk of screenwriting chores, and their collective, seasoned stamp is evident. The story is as edgy as it needs to be without getting too coy or cute.

Early on, the Homer character directly addresses the audience, chiding them for paying for something they could see for free on TV. It's a bold move, and one that could insult a less intelligent audience.

True "Simpsons" fans get the dig and laugh right along with it. They might not be as discerning or fervent as the Harry Potter faithful, but they're equally as dedicated. They'll gladly pay for something now that they'll eventually end up seeing for free. (Fox)

E-mail Michael Clark at clarkwriter@mindspring.com.