Simpsons: 'Ka-Ching' Is the Same in Any Language

Homer and Bart flee a fireball on a motorcycle

The Simpsons Movie is blowing up big at the overseas box office. Twentieth Century Fox hide caption

itoggle caption Twentieth Century Fox

In Argentina, Homer, Marge and the rest of the Simpsons clan are livin' la vida grande.

In fact, The Simpsons Movie, which has been a big hit in the United States, has somewhat unexpectedly been a much bigger smash overseas.

After posting the biggest international opening weekend for any American comedy in history (more than $93 million), the picture is now proving to have legs. For two weeks in a row, it's topped foreign box-office charts, taking in $190 million in its first 10 days. It's outperformed the lumbering Transformers in markets where they opened together, and in some places, it's topped the openings of Spider-Man 3, Shrek the Third and the fifth film in the Harry Potter series.

It did all that here in Buenos Aires, where I'm spending part of my summer, and was so hard to get into when I tried to see it on opening weekend — by 4 p.m. that Saturday, every show at the local shopping mall was sold out, including an added 2 a.m. screening — that I finally had to give up. On the second weekend, I caught the show with a crowd of appreciative locals and tourists, who seemed to know the characters at least as well as I did.

Partly this is because Los Simpson (as the cartoon family is known here) have been a staple on Argentine TV for more than a decade. On TV, the voices are dubbed into Spanish by local actors, and for that reason — unlike almost all other Hollywood films, which are shown here in English with Spanish subtitles — the dialogue in Los Simpson: La Pelicula is dubbed into Spanish.

This is also true in other countries where the picture has opened to surprisingly large numbers. And maybe those numbers shouldn't be such a surprise, considering the worldwide popularity of the TV show.

It has probably also helped the box office that the film has opened in most markets on the same day it did in the U.S. — a relatively new development internationally. Harry Potter, Spider-Man 3 and Shrek the Third also opened simultaneously in cities around the world. Here in Argentina, that allowed all of them to take advantage of a school holiday.

(It also helped them get a jump on the film piracy that's increasingly a fact of life with major box-office hits. Leaving the theater on Saturday, I saw bootleg DVDs of Los Simpson: La Pelicula for sale on the street already, presumably poor-quality copies made with camcorders from a theater screen.)

None of which has discouraged the public from attending. On opening weekend, 182 screens in Argentina grossed an astonishing $2.3 million, or more than $13,000 per screen — especially impressive, given that ticket prices here are less than half what they are in the U.S.

'Simpsons Movie': Bigger, Longer, Underwhelming

Homer Bart Hammer i i

Homer, Bart and the rest of the Simpsons get into scrapes minor ... Twentieth Century Fox hide caption

itoggle caption Twentieth Century Fox
Homer Bart Hammer

Homer, Bart and the rest of the Simpsons get into scrapes minor ...

Twentieth Century Fox

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Marge fireball i i

... and major in The Simpsons Movie, which finds the town of Springfield turning on them en masses after Homer causes an ecological crisis. Twentieth Century Fox hide caption

itoggle caption Twentieth Century Fox
Marge fireball

... and major in The Simpsons Movie, which finds the town of Springfield turning on them en masses after Homer causes an ecological crisis.

Twentieth Century Fox

The Simpsons Movie is longer, more plot-driven, and has more showy animation than an average episode, but it rarely captures the show's magic — the lunatic free-associations and madcap highs. Like the SpongeBob SquarePants movie, it loses something when it's padded and ironed out to conform to a standard Hollywood story template.

I'm frankly more of a South Park than a Simpsons guy — and yet the scatalogical savagery of South Park would hardly have been possible without The Simpsons. The show was a freak TV milestone, its airing the upshot, almost two decades ago, of the fledgling Fox Network's attempt to differentiate itself from the Big Three. Matt Groening, James L. Brooks, and a writing team that boasted a lot of Harvard Lampoon alumni not only changed the way we saw prime-time cartoons, they changed our notion of TV sitcoms. It turns out you can cram a TV show with TV parodies end to end and still find time for a plot. You can even sass Fox and Republican talking points on Rupert Murdoch's dime.

The Simpsons Movie is rooted in the environmental crisis — a fashionable subject now, but one this show has always been in front on. One of its earliest and most memorable images was of a three-eyed fish from a polluted lake being served up to Homer Simpson's boss, the rapacious captain of industry Mr. Burns, and there's a variation of the same gag here.

But Burns isn't the movie's chief polluter. It's Homer who blithely dumps a silo of pig manure into an endangered lake, and whose selfishness has epic consequences. Somehow he brings about the quarantining and imminent nuking of his hometown, Springfield. And when the truth comes out, the whole town converges on him — and Marge, and Bart, and Lisa and baby Maggie.

The family escapes from the mob and heads for Alaska — where, Homer says, you can't be too fat or too drunk — where tensions escalate. His son Bart has already disowned him, preferring the pious ministrations of their next-door neighbor, Flanders. Even Homer's loyal wife is on the verge of giving him up for his selfishness.

It's too bad that, unlike other cartoon protagonists, Homer has always bored me silly. South Park's voracious Cartman is like a character out of a Voltaire play — outsized, with sleazeball stature. Hank Hill of King of the Hill is a befuddled Everyman who is somehow both smaller and larger than life. SpongeBob SquarePants is an eternal optimist of transcendent obliviousness.

But Homer remains a boob, a thickie, a foil for the appalled Bart, the socially conscious Lisa and the chiding but devoted Marge. The dumber Homer is, the more the series — and now the movie — comes down to gags and pop-culture parodies: jabs at TV, suburban cluelessness, political chicanery and the heartlessness of big business and show business.

The gags in the movie are hit and miss. I liked the Tom Hanks cameo and some Road Runner-esque slapstick. But the writers get surprisingly little mileage out of President Arnold Schwarzenegger and his EPA director, Bob Cargill, a blandly resourceful totalitarian lunatic — although the latter is voiced with just the right degree of smugness by someone whose credit reads "A. Brooks," and who sounds like the dad in Finding Nemo.

One joke, though, is so brilliant it made me gasp. When what looks like a huge saucer from space hovers over Springfield, the people in a church run screaming into the bar next door while, at practically the same instant, the people in the bar run screaming into the church. You could write a whole sociology dissertation on that five-second gag. That's The Simpsons at its most glorious and here, alas, all too fleeting.

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