Yellow but not mellow

Special to The Times

NOT even threats of visits by Sideshow Bob or Fat Tony and the boys could wheedle many details of the upcoming "The Simpsons Movie" out of the series' powers that be. Fans can only speculate on what kind of treatment it will get -- there's the bloated, inflated episode route (think "Star Trek: The Motion Picture") or the movie as extension of the series option ("The X-Files").

Specifics remain as closely guarded as the identity of the state in which Springfield is located. (Geography enthusiasts: the city has a gorge, an ocean port, a volcano and a desert.) "I can't really tell you much," said director David Silverman, "other than the Simpsons will be in it. Springfield will be in it; it's not being shot in Vancouver. Very few animals were hurt in the shooting of this film

Speaking from their sanctum sanctorum (an unremarkable writers' room with a poster of dozens of the show's characters on the wall) on the 20th Century Fox lot, executive producers James L. Brooks, Matt Groening and Al Jean vacillated between stoking expectations and throwing them in with the kindling.

"We're doing things we never could have done on the series," said Brooks, who won his 19th Emmy last year. "Obviously, there's that much more manpower brought into it, and hopefully we're telling a story that requires this length."

"Pixar movies are so good," said Jean, "we want to live up to that too."

"No, we're not going to look as good," Brooks hastily added with a laugh. "Don't go away thinking that!"

Although all three stressed the importance of a strong emotional component, they made clear that their intentions were still sufficiently low-falutin.

"We want to make people laugh," said "Simpsons" creator Groening. "Not that it's a role model in content, but the 'South Park' movie was proof that you could do a movie that didn't have the greatest animation but was really funny from beginning to end."

The notion of a big-screen version of America's longest-running sitcom has been around since at least its third season. But because of the talent drain caused by Hollywood's animation boom and the insistence of the show's brain trust on complete control, it wasn't until a couple of years ago that the idea gained any real traction. The show has generated billions of dollars in revenue and has become culturally iconic, to the horror of some -- former President George H.W. Bush once said, "We're going to keep trying to strengthen the American family, to make them more like 'The Waltons' and less like 'The Simpsons.' "

The film's release, scheduled for summer, will roughly coincide with the TV show's 400th episode and the 20th anniversary of America's favorite insanely dysfunctional family's debut on "The Tracey Ullman Show." (The show's run "is beyond my wildest dreams. And I have really wild dreams," Groening says.)

The honor and burden of directing the highly anticipated film version falls to Silverman, whose credits include some of the "Ullman" shorts and the series' first episodes as well Pixar's "Monsters, Inc."

Since Silverman was one of the only experienced animators at the show's inception, Groening said he "invented a lot of the rules on how to draw the characters. Like Bart has, I don't even know, 13 spikes or 11 spikes? And Marge's hairdo is nine eyeballs tall."

From the movie's production hub at Film Roman in Burbank, the wild-eyed, enthusiastic Silverman lacked only a lab coat and soda-bottle glasses to complete the mad-scientist persona.

"I thought it should be basically Panavision as opposed to American widescreen," he said. "If you're going to go from roughly a square format to a feature, let's really go for it, let's go for it as wide as possible."

The director also highlighted that, although the look would still be identifiably Simpsons, small additions like tone shadows would provide new dimension for these "big yellow characters."

It may just be compression madness from the upcoming deadline -- culminating a year of physical production as opposed to six months for a single TV episode -- but they seem almost giddy at the challenge of meeting fan expectations.

"People have had a lot of dreams of what this might be, over 18 years," said Jean in an unconvincing deadpan, "and I think it will match or exceed all of them."

"I'm not sure we can live up to our secrecy," said Brooks.

"I think it'll be a cultural experience somewhere between 'Sgt. Pepper's,' the record, and 'Sgt. Pepper's,' the movie," said Jean.

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