A shadow of a doubt

Saturday, July 28, 2007

The familiar townspeople were all there, from Waylon Smithers to the guy who looks like a mole. But what were those strange pools of gray following them around -- lining their bodies, surrounding their homes, mimicking their every move?

Have the townspeople of Springfield been plucked from their home planet -- their universe, even -- and deposited in some mysterious new place, where physical objects disrupt the path of projected light?

There's no escaping it: "The Simpsons Movie" has shadows, and I find it unsettling.

Don't get me wrong -- I love shadows. The way they announce the passage of a flock of pigeons overhead. The way they slice through the summer heat. The way, early and late in the day, they help me imagine what it would be like to be taller.

And yes, on occasion, the way they enhance animated programming.

But the good people of Springfield didn't need shadows tailing them any more than they needed a fifth finger.

Part of the brilliance of "The Simpsons" -- which Time magazine, quite correctly, dubbed the best TV show of the 20th century -- lies in Matt Groening & Co.'s creation of an elaborate consistent universe that resembles, but does not quite replicate, our own.

Blue hair. Yellow skin. Congenital overbites. The inability to age.

And nothing -- absolutely nothing -- casts a shadow.

OK, "absolutely" is a little strong. Shadows actually show up on the TV show quite a bit, when they're needed to establish a particular mood -- like when Homer and Mr. Burns are trapped in a cabin by an avalanche, dreaming up paranoid fantasies. Without the noir-ish shadows and building orchestral music, we wouldn't be nearly as entertained when Burns says, "I'll kill you, you bloated museum of treachery!"

But again, those shadows were there for a reason, justified by the "flexible reality" of the "Simpsons" physical universe that Groening enjoys talking about. Like when King Toot's Music Store shows up across the street from Moe's tavern for a single episode to facilitate a story line about Lisa getting a new saxophone.

This is sort of an animation convention. (No, not the kind where you think I should be spending my Saturdays.) In cartoons, shadows, like other images and objects, come and go as needed within a given plot -- watch any episode of "Scooby-Doo" or even the original Mickey Mouse cartoon, 1928's "Steamboat Willie," and you'll see what I mean.

My point: In general, the world of "The Simpsons" has no unjustified shadows, and there's no good reason why the movie should be different.

I understand that great pains were taken to make "The Simpsons Movie" more cinematic than simply watching a few episodes on a big screen. As director David Silverman said in promotional materials for the show, "We didn't want to break the graphic look of the series, but instead enrich it and fill it out."

In this case, though, to "enrich" the look of the series is, in fact, to damage it. Part of the beauty of Springfield is its existence on a two-dimensional plane, as a flat -- though vividly colorful -- collection of body parts, skateboards, front-yard trees and Main Street shops.

I understand the movie needed a large-scale plot, some sense of character growth, even a larger-scale physical look than the show I watch every day on my 27-incher.

But shadows? Not in my "Simpsons."

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