Homer Simpson's Big-Screen Odyssey

To make it on the big screen, you have to give people something spectacular. Something extraordinary. Something like Bart Simpson—full frontal. It happens early in "The Simpsons Movie," when the animated 10-year-old takes a dare from his goofball father, Homer, to skateboard naked through the streets of Springfield. Hidden by plants and picket fences, he whizzes along, past kids, down hills, through traffic lights, until, in one shocking moment, little Bart flashes his little part to the entire world. Which may make this the first Hollywood film to show that kind of skin and to escape an R rating.

In a summer bursting with comedies—including major animated fare "Shrek the Third" and the new Pixar film, "Ratatouille"—"The Simpsons Movie," which opens July 27, is both the least hyped and the most anticipated. Since "The Simpsons" debuted in 1989, it has built a fanatical fan base, earned 23 Emmys and generated more than $2.5 billion in revenue, if you include the never-ending selection of T shirts. Now in its 18th season, "The Simpsons" is the longest-running sitcom in history, and it's broadcast in more than 70 countries. An online poll conducted in 2003 by the BBC declared Homer Simpson "The Greatest American." No. 2: Abraham Lincoln. "Homer is what other countries think America is like," says writer-producer Al Jean, who has been with the show since the beginning. "Voting for Homer was like saying, 'Screw you, America.' It's probably part of our success."

Entire books—and a few doctoral dissertations—have analyzed the significance of "The Simpsons": how the family became blue-collar antidotes to idealized "Ozzie & Harriet" Americana, how the show's swirling of stinging social satire and base physical humor helped it to cross all comedy boundaries. All that's true. But the reason people love these dysfunctional yellow characters—and Homer in particular—may be less academic. "Every time someone creates a Ralph Kramden or an Archie Bunker or a Homer Simpson, it's considered one of the greatest characters on TV," Jean says. "Because that's who people really are. We're a show about a family, a screwed-up family, and that's where most people come from." Amid all the absurdity of "The Simpsons" universe, the writers have made sure to keep the nuclear family at the show's center. Creator Matt Groening credits writer and executive producer James L. Brooks with that. "In the writers' room, Jim is the guy who pitches the heartfelt moment, which is very difficult for a comedy writer to do," Groening says. "Everybody is trying to be the most cynical, the most jaded, and Jim is willing to go for that sweet stuff."

That sweet stuff is at the core of the movie, too, but getting it made took almost as many years as Bart has been in the fourth grade. "This movie has been rewritten more heavily than any human document," Jean says. "The thing we fear most is making a bad movie. It's really daunting, because every fan has a vision of what this movie should be." Although animated shows "South Park" and "Rugrats" have successfully made the transition from TV to film, history is littered with sitcom-to-screen forays (e.g., "Bewitched," "The Brady Bunch Movie") that flopped. "Yeah, it's a risk," Groening says. "But look at all the lousy movies that make huge box office. And I think everyone who worked on this is pretty proud." That said, ratings for the sitcom have dropped recently. Did Groening wait too long to make the movie? Apparently not. " 'The Simpsons' has a loyal cult following, and they're always talking about a movie," says Robert Bucksbaum of Exhibitor Relations, a movie-industry analyst. His box-office estimate: up to $175 million. "You're going to be a little bit surprised by how well this film does."

The idea of making a movie first came up back in 1990, but it always got pushed down the to-do list. Finally, around 2003, Groening and gang got serious about it, but instituted a cone of silence around the project. Although the basic plot has been in place for years, the filmmakers have managed to prevent any details from slipping out. "That's the way it's supposed to be," Brooks says, laughing. "It's always more fun not knowing what's going to happen. That's why first dates are so great." Of course, that silence has been rich soil for rumors, most of them initiated by people working on the film, to throw nosy reporters off track. "One of my favorites was by one of the writers," Groening says. "He said the movie's about Bart losing his virginity." Despite that nude scene, it's not. "It's an epic story, but at the heart it's about the family staying together," Groening says. "And, as anyone could predict, Homer causes a great deal of havoc. We just raised the stakes. He can ruin the planet this time, not just Springfield."

Based on footage shown to NEWSWEEK, the film appears to start with a growing environmental crisis. Then Homer further messes things up—there have been (unsubstantiated) rumors about his storing tons of pig waste in the backyard, which seems about his speed—and a new villain appears, voiced by Albert Brooks. ("Well, I'm not sure I'd call him a 'villain'," says James Brooks. "He functions as someone who wants to bring an end to the world, yeah, but ... ") Also, Lisa may get a green-activist boyfriend. The filmmakers get bonus points for Zeitgeist reading—they did environmentally focused shows and dreamed up the movie's eco-angle years before half of Los Angeles was driving a Prius. "You'll never be out of date talking about the environment," says the film's director, David Silverman, who has been with "The Simpsons" since it was a series of skits on "The Tracey Ullman Show." (He also plays the flaming tuba. No joke.) "It's not, like, 'Wow, the environment's solved! No problems now!' "

And anyway, the movie (like the sitcom) is about something much, much deeper than saving some dumb old planet. It's about being a loser, and still winning—albeit in a consolation-prize kind of way. "It's fun to see a dad trying to hold his family together while indulging in every vice he can, and getting his comeuppance again and again," Groening says. "You can relate to him and feel superior!" Unless this whole movie-star thing goes to his head, of course.